Looking in the Mirror (Part 1 of 3)

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Pasang Yangjee Sherpa.

“You become an anthropologist, when you publish,” we were told in a graduate anthropology seminar. If this is true, I became an anthropologist some time ago. But, a further question remains unanswered: what kind of anthropologist am I? I explore this question in three weekly blog posts this month. I look at the experience I have had (those “aha!” moments), the anthropological questions I ask (to myself and others), and the curiosities that (never cease to) motivate me.

Oh, high?

Two months ago, I walked into a gym in Arizona. I needed some motivation to get on the treadmill. I thought Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)” track would do it. It’s loud, fast, and strong, just like Beyonce. Suddenly, I heard Wendy at the front desk ask me, “How high do you take people?”

My friend was introducing me as a guest to Wendy. After learning that I am a real Sherpa, out of curiosity, she wanted to know about my skills on the mountains.

To answer that question, I needed to come out of my Beyonce mind-bubble first. I then needed to think about the question—what was the question? Oh yes, high! Hmm…is this high as in Washington State’s (where I live) legalized marijuana high? I would not know that. I have zero experience of pot. Hmm…what high? Oh right, of course, take people up the mountain…carry their loads…that high. Okay. Got it. But how do I answer it? I have zero experience in mountains or mountaineering or being a porter. It felt like this conversation in my head went on forever. But, it had taken only a couple of seconds to process the situation. I looked back at Wendy, and with a puzzled smile, I replied, “I guess as high as they want to go?”

Hire me…to carry the pipes?

In September of 2011, I attended the “South-South Knowledge Exchange Workshop” in Kathmandu organized “to create a platform for cross border sharing and learning on glacial lakes and their management.” Participants of this event—experts, practitioners, and decision makers from the Andes, and from the central Asian and Hindu Kush-Himalayan regions—had just returned from a 20-day glacial lake expedition to the Imja Lake in Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park. I was not part of that expedition. I was, however, interested in learning about their work, and observing the workshop. That year, I was conducting my dissertation fieldwork studying Sherpa perceptions of climate change, and institutional responses to climate change effects in the Everest region. It would be a great “field” experience, I thought. So, I attended.

At this workshop, we were divided into smaller groups to discuss various topics. I chose to be in the group that discussed implementation of future programs in the Everest region—how to deal with the potentially dangerous Imja glacial lake, and how to work with local communities. Not surprisingly, I was the only person (a local, who is not based locally) from the Everest region in the room. I listened. Several minutes into our discussion, there was no mention of the residents of this place under discussion. So, I pointed out that if we are to implement any project, it is necessary to include the Sherpas. If we don’t, it will be very difficult to work on the ground. A glaciologist from the Andes, who had just returned from the land of the Sherpas, looked at me (a Sherpa). Nodding in agreement, he said, “…Of course we are going to make sure the Sherpas are participating. We can hire them to carry the pipes and other machinery to the Imja Lake…”

Reclaiming Sherpa

The year 2013 was significant for us. We witnessed the Western media go haywire, when they discovered the Sherpas were no longer the quiet, helpful, and subservient kind. The big discovery, enough to shake media outlets worldwide, was that the Sherpas showed human emotion. They were angry.

This year was also significant for the Sherpa community because of something else that was smaller in scale, but large in the cultural impression it left. For the first time ever, Sherpas in our own voice (hashtags and tweets) reclaimed Sherpa, the name of our ethnic group. The twitter handle @ReclaimSherpa was started to “fight back against cultural misappropriation and commodification of Sherpa” (Reclaiming Sherpa website). Some of the tweets are shared on their website. There are tweets protesting the misappropriation of our ethnic name, and there are tweets about what it means to be a Sherpa. Here are some of my favorites:

“Do you know what “Sol Shey” or “Kha Chum” means, if you don’t then most likely you are not a #Sherpa. #Sherpafordummies”

“Have you eaten Sen with Soldur and felt it warm your stomach. No, then you are not a #Sherpa. #Sherpafordummies”

“You are not a #Sherpa woman if you have not wondered why it’s mostly us who has to do the “Shey Shey”. #Sherpafordummies”

“You are a #Sherpa if you are a connoisseur of potatoes and prepare them in a wide variety of ways, all very difficult. #Sherpafordummies”

“I’m from Nepal and can carry heavy loads. Does this mean I’m a #Sherpa? Ans: No! #Sherpafordummies”

The author of the website Reclaiming Sherpa (accessed May 12, 2017) explains why we need to reclaim Sherpa:

“Because it’s not right. We Sherpas are an indigenous ethnic group from Nepal with our history, culture and language that we are proud of. Many people, predominantly in western countries, wrongly associate the word ‘Sherpa’ with porters and mountain guides who have been indispensable for the success of mountaineering expeditions in the Chomolungma (Everest) region. The romanticization of everyday lives of Sherpas by Westerner mountaineers, reinforced by added glamour of Chomolungma – the highest mountain on Earth – may have led to this misappropriation. Not only that, Sherpa is also used in branding goods and services, mostly in the West. The brand name Sherpa in the advertising world is something dependable, sturdy, can guide you, is at your service, and something that works for you so [that] you can achieve your potential. This orientalization of Sherpa has also made its way into popular usage with both positive and negative connotations.”

Even Homer Simpson met the (Simpsonified) Sherpas. To be continued…

2 thoughts on “Looking in the Mirror (Part 1 of 3)

  1. Thanks for releasing Your thoughts, this text la
    I’ve been trying, could be successfully, to see Sherpa not as guides or as porters (although they sometimes function as ones..)..
    The whole Himalaya is a interesting region. Full of hidden knowledge and wisdom.
    So, now maybe it’s time to change the way of seeing..

  2. Glad to see you sharing these reflections Pasang! Looking forward to reading the next in this series. Two related questions provoked by your post. 1) Do you see the #/@reclaiming Sherpa movement still gaining momentum in 2017, or has it slowed down or mutated since 2013? 2) Do you feel like you have a different “Sherpa perspective” as an anthropologiest living in the US now, compared to other Sherpas of your same age/background who might not have left their local home area or the KTM valley? Just wondering how much of the reclaiming Sherpa is coming from the region, versus expats and others who left their home communities for school or work?

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