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No house, no money, but tough teen shoulders family burdens


Dangqiu Lamao, her hair in a neat, long braid, has a quiet, patient demeanour rare in most 15-year-old girls.

Her calm nature is even more unusual considering Dangqiu's life.

Last year's earthquake in Qinghai shattered the family's house in Jiegu town and further injured her mother, 33, who was already suffering from a congenital eye disease. Her father died in an accident five years ago, so Dangqiu shouldered the responsibility of caring for her family.

The girl, with her mother, brother and sister, initially sought shelter in Nangqian county, where they came from. However, the journey to school took more than two hours, required two changes of transport, and cost 16 yuan (HK$19) each way, so earlier this year the three siblings decided to move to a tent in Jiegu, in Yushu county.

'We are living with a family from our village back home,' Dangqiu said. 'It's all right. They let us stay in their tent, and I share the housework with the mother. And every Sunday we go home to see our mother.'

The three buy their own food and leave it with their foster family and their five children. Every other day, Dangqiu has to cook for everyone. She also has to help fetch water, do laundry and take care of her 11-year old sister Zhuoga Yongji and brother Danzeng Nima, eight.

The lucky thing is, all eight children get along very well. 'Sometimes when I cannot pick up my sister and brother because I have extra lessons at school, they help,' Dangqiu said. All the children go to the same school.

But now schoolwork is also becoming harder for Dangqiu, as she is preparing for her end-of-primary-school exams, and the children must finish most of their year's studies before May 20, when the caterpillar fungus digging season begins.

Like many children in Yushu, Dangqiu has been digging for caterpillar fungus since she was eight. The precious medicinal herb is the major, if not the only, source of income for most ethnic Tibetan families in the region, and schools all offer a month off between mid-May and mid-June instead of a summer break.

For years, Dangqiu has been leading her sister and brother in the digging in the mountains, as her mother could not see well. They pitch their tents with others from their own village and often dig for up to 12 hours a day.

'For the first two weeks, we have to crawl on the ground to find caterpillar fungi while they are still small,' she said. 'They are quite difficult to spot, as they are greyish-brown. Then, as they grow longer, we can spot them even if we are standing.'

Danqgiu said children were better at this, but they did not enjoy it.

'It's cold,' Zhuoga said.

'We have to do it. It is the only income we have,' Dangqiu said.

Each year they dig up a few hundred pieces of the herb, which pays them 2,000 yuan.

As one of the top students in her sixth-grade class, Dangqiu was chosen to attend a free junior high school in Tianjin starting in September, as part of the government's post-quake assistance efforts. But she is not sure whether she should go. 'My mum had an operation on an ear tumour after the quake, but she's still suffering from headaches,' Dangqiu said. 'And I don't know who would look after my sister and brother.'

Dangqiu's mother, who initially was reluctant to see her move to somewhere so far away, told her to go.

'Go. Otherwise you'll end up like me, illiterate, unable to find a job, unable to achieve anything,' Dangqiu said, recalling her mother's words.

But there is one bigger worry on Dangqiu's mind. 'For a while now, when I read, I often see double lines,' she said. 'I don't dare to tell my mother.'