Meditations on Barley

Photo of the author,  Tenzin Namdol . 

Photo of the author, Tenzin Namdol

Tsampa Soup. I saw this vestige of my culture on sale in a Patagonia retail store. It’s a dehydrated instant soup that comes to life when you add a little bit of hot water. Made for (probably) white adventure seekers who will inevitably descend from sacred Himalayan peaks and then seek me out to tell me that they visited my country. They’ll tell me how beautiful my land is, how strong the people are—the incredible generosity of the incredibly poor. They’ll ask me if I’ve ever been to my homeland without ever knowing the deep, inter-generational heartbreak of that question. Their curiosity is like the $6.50 exotified dust of a commodity that shares the namesake of meals my grandfather ate when he circumambulated Mt Kailash. When Tibet was a sovereign nation. When fields of barley grew on my family’s farm in the Kyirong region of Southern Tibet.

Tsampa in its most simple state is roasted barley flour. Tsampa is also what I have left of a culture and land from which I have been uprooted. Tibetans have a strong relationship to barley; it grows well even in high elevation and cold conditions. Archaeologists note long-standing settlements with evidence of food cultivation and livestock (sheep) dating back as early as 3,200 years ago, around the same time barley came to the Tibetan Plateau. Barley and sheep allowed people to settle the land and transform the once harsh landscape into one with an abundant and hardy food supply. This essentially created Tibetan culture (totally not backed up by proper science but definitely backed up by this Tibetan writer).

Photo by Siriwatthana Chankawee/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Siriwatthana Chankawee/iStock / Getty Images

During Losar, the Tibetan New Year, every altar in every Tibetan home is decorated with a sheep head and, you guessed it, barley everything: seeds, stalks, and flour. We put it in soups to heal our children from colds, take it on long journeys, use it during rituals and special ceremonies. It’s everywhere. Tibetan culture, in all it’s romanticized, exotified, misunderstood glory, exists today because of barley—because of Tsampa. It is both root and crown, both heart and sacral in perfect balance. Even after the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959, barley still grows on the plateau because barley doesn’t care what mouths it feeds, which tongues chew and gnaw at her cell walls. Plants are magic like that, they don’t know about occupation, dislocation, disconnection. Barley is deep-rooted; it holds the land together to prevent erosion, and as a cheaper crop, nourishes the poor.

I find myself crying at the sight of a packaged meal in a retail outlet mall as I consider all of these things. As I contemplate how I can sneak back into my own country because the government doesn’t like to issue travel visas to foreigners with Tibetan surnames. The way the Chinese Government sees it, those are the kinds of overseas Tibetans who are spreading separatism by following the Dalai Lama out of the country after the Occupation and, secondly, by demanding freedom. I fit both of those criterion.  It's much more difficult for me to get access into Tibet than a person with a non-Tibetan name. So, I don’t want to hear gleeful, almost always white climbers and adventure seekers tell me just how great my country is. I don’t know that for myself and I will most likely never know. Don’t share unsolicited reports and don’t feed my heartbreak. I’ll feed myself real tsampa soup: the kind my mom made me when I was sick, the kind my grandpa carried with him to Mt Kailash, the kind that doesn’t need a marketing team to sell because it’s in my DNA.