Watching his daughter on a homemade ladder smoothing varnish over the red-and-yellow trim of their large new log house, Norbu Choden smiled with the satisfaction that even if there was no getting the Chinese out of Tibet, he'd finally figured out how to benefit from their decades-long occupation of his homeland. "Once you understand that they’re never going to help us," he said, "you realize that you have to make your own future."
Norbu made his by transforming himself from a herdsman to a middleman. Like many of the five million Tibetans living under China's flag, he'd spent nearly all of his 48 years in eastern Tibet driving shaggy yaks through alpine meadows, eating their meat and butter, living in a tent woven from their coarse black wool, barely getting by from one brutal winter to the next. Now he leaves the hard work to others, while he buys and sells for profit.
The middleman has a long and storied history among Chinese, but his vital economic role has largely eluded the grasp of Tibetans. Before Norbu's metamorphosis, he would look on with envy as Chinese from neighboring Sichuan Province arrived each spring, buying up a wrinkled little fungus that he and other nomads had dug from the ground in their spare time. The Chinese then sold the brown Cordyceps, known as caterpillar fungus, for huge profits to traditional medicine makers.