Published at 25th of January 2016 08:06:33 PM
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Chapter 2

Chapter 2: A monk and a nun

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When I regain consciousness, I find myself surrounded by a group of strange-looking people: high nose, deep eyes, thin lips, round faces, short necks, smooth white skin, their pupils a dark brown . The men are thick and tall, the women plump and healthy . They all have curly hair, a reddish hue, down to their shoulders . Their clothes are even more unusual . The men are dressed in collared tunics with fitted sleeves and cinched at the waist . They wear boots high up to their knees and a sword slung on each of their back . The women’s dresses are knee-length with fitted sleeves . They wrap their shoulders in shawls and also wear high boots .

I am impressed with myself . Even in a state of exhaustion, I can still observe and describe the appearance and clothes of people around me like a professional with only a few glances . The information loses meaning when I start to smell the food .

There are only bread and bowls of hot noodles, but that is enough for me to salivate . I quickly take the food from the hands of a woman in her forties . After mumbling a thank you, I dig in ravenously . The bread soon vanishes and the noodle bowls follow after a few mouthfuls . My stomach finally regains some feeling . I still want to eat some more and hesitantly I begin to ask, only to realize a problem—we don’t speak the same language .

Not a surprise since a glance could already tell me they are not Han people, and I am still not certain whether I have returned to the past or not . Who knows, maybe this experiment is merely a free plane ride that can take me to some desert in the Middle East or Africa, only to meet a primitive nomadic tribe by chance . Maybe I am still in the 21st century . I try to use English, to no avail .

As I contemplate my dilemma amidst the strange sounds, two new people suddenly arrive in the tent . The others immediately stop their discussion and appear to be very respectful toward the newcomers . I can already guess their identities, but when they come closer, I get such a shock that renders me agape for a long minute .

They are a nun in her thirties and a young monk around fifteen, sixteen . But what surprised me the most is the dignified and noble aura they exude . They just stand there silently, and still their otherworldly aura spreads around me .

The nun’s face is similar to the other women, but her skin is a smoother white, her eyes are big, her eyebrows long and sleek . In her eyes there is a glimpse of worry . With her round and full body, even the simple brown kāṣāya* cannot hide its beauty . However, it seems the nun’s forehead is different compared to others—it is pressed down and back toward the nape, a somewhat bizarre image . I recall that ancient Egyptians and Persians used to have a custom of pressing their foreheads flat when young, but that practice was only limited to members of the royal family . I wonder whether the nun’s forehead was already like that at birth or got pressed afterward . Still, the flat forehead does nothing to lessen her beauty .
*kāṣāya: robes worn by Buddhist monks and nuns

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My observation moves onto the fifteen-year-old monk and with a start, I realize how strangely bewitching his handsomeness is . Still the same high nose and deep eyes, but not as rugged as the others’ . His face is exactly like a Greek statue, the lines radiant like a sculpture that was chiseled with great attention to detail . His countenance is a work of harmony: his eyebrows long and dark, his pupils a light gray and endlessly deep, untainted like the blue sky atop the desert . He may be young, but the air he exudes is majestic and bright, giving me a feeling of both warmth and intrigue .

His lips are thin but the lines are clear; when they are closed, the edges curved into an elegant line . His face is long, his chin sharp, situated on top of a thin and long neck like a swan, each line a vivid brush . Unlike the other men in the tent, his skin is the color of a honeycomb . Wrapped in a long cloak that covered his entire body, with his height at 1m70*, it makes him look even more imposing, but also renders his clothes rather plain . It is obvious he will continue to grow, maybe to 1m80* or taller .
*1m70 = 5’7” in height, 1m80 = 5’10”

I study those two strangers intently, my mind a mess, until I wake with a start when they begin to speak to me in broken Han .

It takes me a while before I realize they are asking me where I come from and why I am lost wandering here . I look at them with anguish and reply, “Please tell me, where is this place, and to which country does it belong to?”

The nun looks uncertain but the little* monk seems to have already grasped a few things . He suddenly bends down next to me; his handsome and pure face shines brightly . Bewitched by that beauty, my heart beats fast and I feel disoriented for a second .
*little as in age

“We arrive in Wensu, almost . You are Han?” he asks me .

Not yet recovered from my skipping heartbeat, I chuckle at how serious he looks despite his accented Han and mixed-up order of grammar .

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Shyness overcomes him and his face reddens slightly, “Han language, I, speak not good . ”

He turns back to the nun and speaks with her for a long while . I stop chuckling, trying to guess the place he referred to . From his pronunciation, it doesn’t seem like a place in the Central Plains [mainland China] . The monk turns back to me and continues with our conversation, “You, go, where?”

I reply eagerly, “Chang’an*, do you know it?”
*capital of ancient China for more than ten dynasties

Seeing the monk nod, I sigh in relief . So it is a landmark that exists and is known here .

“But…” the monk looks at me hesitantly . “Very far, alone, you?”

I nod my head tiredly . Right now, except for Chang’an, I cannot think of any other place . At the very least, I don’t have to worry about language barrier there .

“We, go Kuchi, you, on the way,” the monk says .

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It takes him quite some effort to pronounce a word . I am brimming with laughter but I try hard to suppress it . Saving my life, and now making conversation with me, that is plenty to be grateful for . I wonder what is this Kuchi place? I must have already landed for seven, eight hours, and yet still no clue on where and when in time . A student researcher majoring in history from a famous university like me, what an embarrassment!

“You, your name?”

“Huh?” Lost in my own thoughts, it takes the monk asking a second time before I realize he is asking for my name .

“My name is Ai Qing* . ”
*her name has the same pronunciation as the word “love” in Chinese .

My name has long been in a topic of laughter for people . Ever since I was young I was nicknamed “Love” [English] . The boys loved to tease and shout out my name: Oh, my love! [English]

I have fought to change my name but my parents refused . After a while I got used to it . Being called “ai qing” [love] is no big deal, except that after bearing such a name for years, there is still no sign of my love cupid .

“My name is…” the monk then says a long string of strange sounds that I cannot seem to remember .

I can only smile in reply . The monk patiently repeats it three times . Based on the pronunciation, I manage to find corresponding syllables in the Han language: Ku-ma-la-ji-ba, indeed quite hard to say . I try anyway, “Ku-ma-la-ji-ba, Ku-ma-la-ji-ba, Ku-ma-la-ji-ba…”

His lips follow the ups and downs of my pronunciation and end in laughter—the sound high, pure and resonating like a stream of water against rocks . I suddenly remember, not too long ago it was me who laughed at his wrong Han pronunciation, now it is me on the receiving end . My cheeks burn .

The monk laughs for a bit and stops, perhaps noticing my reddening face . He points toward the beautiful nun standing behind, “Mother, my, Jiba . ”

The beautiful nun is his mother? They are both monastic? Since he is so young, his mother must have induced him into Buddhism? A feeling of regret passes by me, but I soon chase it away . Jiba? I wonder if that is a given name or an honorific . I raise my voice and say her name . The nun nods at me .

“You, rest, we, tomorrow, journey,” are the monk’s last words .

After the two of them left, I stay back at the tent with four more women . I don’t understand what they say, but they seem friendly enough . Not daring to ask for more food, I lie down on the soft bedding they made especially for me .

So I am at a faraway place with a language barrier . Outside in the desert, the wind lets out a screeching sound, a terrible wail in the middle of the night . My heart weighs down, and every time I close my eyes, homesickness overcomes me and tears flow, wetting my pillow . I try to stop that pathetic feeling by using my most familiar method .

I begin to analyze the images that I saw before going to sleep and name each of the items: I lie on a bed with patterns sewn in rhombus shapes, my head lies on a pillow with flower patterns interspersed with small silver blocks, and my body is covered by a blanket with a triangle pattern . The item holding the water is a ceramic vase with one handle, patterned like a net . The bowl holding the bread earlier was a bowl made of clay . I guess that I have come to the ancient times because the techniques used to craft those items are still very primitive . Judging by the level of pottery skills in Central Plains, these techniques must have existed more than two thousand years ago . But I don’t know how it is here .

The screaming winds outside along with the steady breathing in the tent cannot stop the exhaustion and sleepiness coming to me . I curl up in the warm blanket and slowly fall asleep .

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