Well-traveled

There’s Got To Be a Morning After

Little Cousin just grins
Sada watches a soap opera
With crowds gone, entertainers don’t look so entertaining
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Guesthouse sweet guesthouse
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The hearth or “grandmother’s” room in a Lugu home
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LUGU LAKE, China—The first rule of adjusting to altitude is not to overly exert oneself right away. The second is some silliness about avoiding alcohol. But it’s our first night with the Mosuo, and Joe is determined to show us a good time. His 19-year-old cousin appears, grinning and blushing. Joe speaks to him, and Candy laughs. “No one has made walking marriage with Little Cousin.”We have been drinking tea and watching a soap opera with Joe’s female cousin and her daughter. Sada is 5 and fascinated by the costume drama, which explores the trials of a high-ranking Mandarin who must choose between two wives. “The name translates to Sky Under No Double,” says Candy. “Sort of like Uniquely in the World. My grandmother never misses it.”We leave the television and talk about sex while walking back to Luoshi. Although Mosuo girls are given their own rooms when they’re 13, most of them don’t take lovers until their late teens. Courtship begins slowly, with songs and small talk. “So, you don’t have sex right away?”Joe looks shocked. “Of course not. No one wants to make walking marriage with a slut.” I sigh. Some things, it seems, are universal. If the relationship goes well, eventually the couple may be seen together in public. Gifts are given. When—and if—the woman chooses, a child may be conceived. If things don’t go well, both start again with new partners. I have traveled halfway around the world to find a society that—gasp!—basically practices the same serial monogamy as my hometown, minus the hypocrisy. (Here, the role of drunken sorority girls is played by Sichuan prostitutes.) The boys are bored with the conversation and start to talk about the dance. “We charge the tourists,” says Little Cousin. “Every family sends dancers, and then we divide the money. We used to dance only for special occasions. Now it’s every night.”When we arrive, the party is in full swing, and the tourists are very, very drunk. Elaborately costumed Mosuo men and women whirl around a huge fire, accompanied by a circle of lurching Han. It reminds me of the powwows that are so popular in America. The locals grin and flirt, entertaining their guests with an “authentic” ethnic experience. When they step out of the firelight, their faces go dark. We’ve seen enough, and it’s time to get some food. Joe and Little Cousin lead us to a concrete enclosure where we perch behind a glowing brazier while a young woman expertly grills meats and vegetables. Her name is Lang Mu. A member of the Yi minority, she has a heavy black braid that reaches to her waist and a fierce but friendly face. Lang Mu wants to talk. She begins by asking Candy about her education and then about mine. “I loved school,” she says. “I wanted to go to college. But there was no money, and I have a younger brother and sister who will be educated with my help.”There are no adult education classes in this area, no night school, no online MBAs—not even a library. “Did you want to go to college because you love to learn,” I ask, “or to get a better job?”Lang Mu’s look shatters any illusions about a secret love of Shakespeare—as well as my fantasies of funding a lending library. “To get out and make money,” she says. “I work in the fields all day and cook here all night. My life is boring and hard.” She is 23. She sees no escape. We begin our long walk back to the guesthouse, passing canoes and rows of shops. “None of them are Mosuo,” says Joe, pointing to the people closing up souvenir stands. “Mostly Han. The Mosuo row tourists out onto the lake, though. There are no motors allowed, and that’s a good thing. Otherwise, the Han would buy powerboats. They’d take the money and leave us with the pollution.”“If you could afford to buy a souvenir stand, would you?”Joe laughs, almost spitting in the direction of the knickknack vendors. “Mosuo are not shopkeepers.””So, what do you do?””I have a good time. I help my uncles and cousins build houses. I’m young. I have no status until my sister has a child. Then, I’m important.”This does not seem to bother him in the least, and when we reach the guesthouse, we’re joined by a shy, pretty girl of about 18. She and Joe insist they do not have a walking marriage. Little Cousin’s snickers tell another story. He grins and begins opening bottles of beer with his teeth while Joe fetches rice whiskey. “This is good stuff,” he boasts. “No headache. We’ll drink. And then we’ll sing.”They say that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Three hours later, it’s also the last refuge of a singer. The kids have taken turns toasting and serenading, and I’ve had to keep up. I’ve exhausted my karaoke repertoire and warbled every Christmas carol I can remember. Amazingly, this is the only place in the world where I haven’t heard “Hotel California.” Any backpacker can tell you the tune is impossible to escape, and I’m not about to be the one to unleash it here. “This is my last song,” I tell Candy, “and then I’m going to bed.” With that, I launch into “The Star Spangled Banner.”Joe and Little Cousin look relieved when the anthem ends, but it’s not because I missed the high notes. “Now they can drink one more beer and pass out,” explains my translator. “Mosuo have a saying: Woman drinks two bottles, man drinks three.””Candy,” I wail, “you didn’t tell me this was a contest.”She yawns and stands up with me.”You didn’t ask.”

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