Adapted from an essay written for a BYU travel writing class in 2011.
Illustrations by ViSnezh
On a normal day in McLeod Ganj, India, my host mom, Tam Kho, woke up at 6:00 a.m. to make balep—bread—for breakfast. By the time I woke up at 6:30, she was sitting on the floor of her tiny kitchen mixing flour, baking soda, and water with her hands as she repeated the Dalai Lama’s mantra of compassion: “Om mani padme hum.”
As I washed my face, Tam Kho left her balep dough and walked to the large framed photograph of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama that sat on a shelf behind bright orange curtains. She picked up the golden tiered dish beside the picture, carried it outside, and dumped yesterday’s water offering over the railing of the deck. I sat on the red velvet cushion and leaned against the side of my bed. She returned, walking slowly so as not to spill the dish that she had just filled to the brim with some of her precious, clean water. She repeated the mantra softly as she walked. When she placed the water offering carefully on the books that lined the shelf, I opened Isaiah to my maroon bookmark and started chapter forty-four. Tam Kho returned to her balep dough, the rhythm of her kneading following the cadence of the mantras.
Trisong, my host uncle, was finally waking up at ten past seven as I was flipping pages to Alma in the Book of Mormon. Tam Kho stood up and walked to His Holiness’s picture again, ticking prayer beads one by one as she went. She repeated, “Om mani padme hum,” as she slid each one. I finished reading in Alma, Tam Kho returned to the kitchen, and we all sat around the table for breakfast.
It was a typical morning, at once Buddhist and Christian. It reminds me of my childhood prophet teaching us to live respectfully with those of different faiths (see Gordon B. Hinckley “This Is the Work of the Master,” Ensign, May 1995). And, really, once you witness Tam Kho’s devotion to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and her devout morning rituals, you can’t believe that Christians are the only good people in this world. There I was, a nineteen-year-old college student, learning Christian tolerance in a real-life context. It was easier than I thought.
And then, on my fifth day in McLeod, Tam Kho slept inside instead of on the bed in the corner of the porch. The porch bed was Lhamo’s, Trisong’s older brother. I fell asleep wondering why she’d come inside.
It happened again the next night. In my mind, I reviewed the introductions from the day I met my host family. Trisong was the one who helped me carry my suitcase. He told me he was my khu, my uncle. When we got to the house, he introduced Lhamo Kyab, his brother, and Tam Kho, his sister-in-law. Hadn’t he said sister-in-law? He definitely had.
So why on earth would Tam Kho change from the porch bed to the double bed inside? I remembered vaguely a discussion of polyandry from a Tibetan language class, thousands of hours and thousands of miles away from this new reality. It was either something inappropriate, which meant that there would be some drama, or she was actually married to both of these brothers.
I waited a day to decide.
The next morning I woke up early when Lhamo Kyab came home from his yoga class. I sat up and looked at Trisong’s bed—there was Tam Kho, still asleep. It wasn’t until I was there in the room with the still-sleeping Trisong and Tam Kho and the calmly smiling Lhamo that I accepted the family structure as polyandrous.
How could Trisong introduce his wife as his sister-in-law? How could he marry his brother’s wife? How could Lhamo accept that? How could they all live in the same one-room house? How can I live in that same one-room house?
It was deceit—betrayal, even. I never imagined there would be something so foreign, so outrageous as this corrupted version of marriage. Even though their home was my one refuge in that town, my fragile trust in them shattered to the point that I couldn’t even look them in the eyes. Wasn’t it awkward enough that we were all living in that same room, trying to pretend that we knew each other well enough to be a temporary family?
We ate breakfast like nothing had happened. Tam Kho smiled her warm, accepting smile at me, and I looked away, refusing amity from this woman with whom I could not possibly stay. I spoke as little as possible.
The next day I emailed the university coordinator in charge of my program. I was hoping that she would validate my uneasiness, tell me that I had license to be aloof from my host family. In short, I was hoping that this one situation didn’t require me to be a Christian, to tolerate people who are so different from me and to love them anyway. Tolerance, I thought, should only go so far.
To my disappointment, the coordinator responded enthusiastically, “How cool about your host family! What an interesting experience for you.” She was genuinely excited about the things I could learn by living with a polyandrous family.
It’s easy to be tolerant when all you are doing is keeping to yourself while Tam Kho gives a water offering and chants a mantra. It’s different when she offends your sensibilities by being married to two brothers at the same time. What do you do when it’s right there in the same room, in the bed next to yours? As a Christian trying to respect diverse cultures and religions, should I stay or could I leave?
But what happens when His feet don’t quite fit in my shoes?
What is a Christian? My name derives from the term, and I have always taken pride in the fact that while other names mean “beloved” or “wisdom,” mine means “follower of Christ.” Sitting in Sunday School, safe in the Rocky Mountains, it’s hard to imagine a situation in which you truly would not know what Jesus would do. We role-play, we share personal experiences, we study scriptures, and we know what Jesus would do at any given time, in any given moment. To follow Christ is to do what He does, to do what He would do if He were wearing my shoes.
But what happens when His feet don’t quite fit in my shoes?
A few days after I discovered the polyandry in my host family, my bag tore. I dug through my suitcase to find the needle and thread that my intuitive mother had sent with me and sat on the red plastic porch chair to try my hand at sewing.
Lhamo saw me through the window and motioned for me to hand the bag to him. Seeing that I did not have black thread to match, he called Tam Kho from the kitchen and explained the situation in rapid Tibetan. She, a tailor by trade, hurried to her sewing machine and pulled out a bucket of supplies. She cut a long thread from her black spool and carried it over to us. Then she sat next to Lhamo, watching him thread the needle and correcting his technique as he began to sew the bag.
As he stitched, he told me to watch what he was doing, preparing me for the three more times that my bag would tear that summer. When he was about halfway through, he handed me the bag, inviting me to try. He took it away quickly as he saw my clumsy attempt to imitate his masterful stitches.
“Look,” he instructed.
Lhamo smiled to himself as he worked, talking to Tam Kho and grinning in response to my many thank-yous. Periodically, Tam Kho would look at me and smile. Tam Kho’s smile is the most memorable aspect of her appearance, but you don’t need to memorize it, because she smiles all the time.
Lhamo began joking in broken English, telling me that I carry too many heavy things in my bag. He imitated me, trying to carry a burdensome bag and falling over from its weight. I laughed. He laughed, too.
I would be staying with them for the rest of the summer.