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The Stupa

September 24, 2018

Cool streams of water run over my hands and drop to my feet as I gently shake the strainer my Ajia handed to me. Slowly, I shift my weight from side to side and wonder where she has gone after motioning with her palm for me to stay behind in the family’s courtyard. My host brother and sister pass me by, my host sister holding a mixture of grains, which looks similar to my own, and I debate in my mind whether I should stay in place or follow them and the chickens they are shooing outside. I opt for the former, realizing that my host sister hasn’t washed her grains as my Ajia has, and continue to wait.

I know I chose correctly when in a few moments, my Ajia reemerges from within the house, a small, blue, cloth bag in her hand. I walk forward to meet her and pour in the grains. “我们去–,” she makes a circular motion with one finger pointed upwards, and finally, I understand: we’re going to pray and walk around the local stupa to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival.

My host mom and sister as well as one of my Ajia’s friends join us as we begin our walk uphill, the sun shining on our faces. I hold the blue bag of rice and seeds firmly with both hands and keep a slow pace behind my Ajia, letting her lead the way for my directionless self. The farther we walk, the more people we encounter headed the same way until at last, I see the white stone of the stupa in the distance. My Jie Jie and I make one round clockwise around the structure, and then she leads me to a furnace-like feature that sits on the side of the road.

The sweet smell of burning grasses fills my nose as we near, and after a moment, my host mom walks up behind us with her own offerings to light. Fire fills the furnace, and my host mom motions to me for the blue bag of grains. I open it up, and both she and my Jie Jie take a handful of the mixture to throw into the fire. My host mom holds the bag out towards me as well, and I fill my own hands with the grain, carefully emptying them out over the pile of charred wood and grass. A bottle of clear liquid sits on the lip of the square stone which supports the furnace, and my host mom and sister each pour a capful over the flames. We move to bow in front of the stupa, and then, once again, we make our rounds, our path cut by laughing children who run instead of walk the clockwise circle. Smiles cover everyone’s faces as we continue.

After a few more turns, we enter the sacred structure to a space filled with the smell of burning candles and incense. Paintings of the Buddha hang on the far wall, where bowls of water sit seven to a set, and in the center of this all is a golden prayer wheel with scriptures written in Tibetan covering the surface. We spin the wheel and bow to the wall of Buddhas, our foreheads touching the ground, and then we are off once more, joining the stream of villagers who have come to celebrate.

The stupa is not only a religious space but also a social one. Men sit on benches nearby as the ever-growing crowd of women walks, and chatter is continuous throughout our journey. Friends of my host sister ask me for my name and age, and kind looks and hearty chuckles make their way around our group as conversation flows. Although I struggle to understand most of what passes between the women around me, I am moved by how quickly they have accepted me and tried to include me in their moment of celebration.

Here in Hong Po, the comfort of community touched me with every walnut or prickly pear cactus fruit the women in my family offered me and with every extra bowl that my Ajia or Jie Jie insisted I eat even though I told them, “吃饱了–chi bao le, I’m full; I’ve eaten enough.” I felt cared for from the moment when I slipped my first time trekking back around my host family’s house from the bathroom outside and my Jie Jie helped me to brush the dirt from my pants to each time she looked out for me and heeded for me to 小心–xiaoxin, be careful–as we climbed the hills around the family house to bacao, or pick weeds. My fellow Dragons and I were in Hong Po for just about two weeks, but time did not prevent the people we met from welcoming us to this community and treating us like family.