“How can the country go up, when the head of state is a sonless widow,” the priest declared. I quietly took notes. I recorded what I was being told on the grounds of gods—a royal court, really. There was the god-king, his god-ministers, and their god-protectors guarding the village full of godly trees tucked high on a mountain slope. We had taken a jeep ride on bumpy and muddy fresh tracks west of Kathmandu, trekked for days through villages, and climbed steep hills to get to the priest.
In the spring of 2016, the Madhesi blockade had just ended, and the country was still feeling the effects of the earthquake from a year ago. Nepal as a nation was suffering, and the pain was going to persist—how could it get better, when a woman, a sonless widow, is occupying the president’s office—implied the holder of knowledge I was interviewing.
Last week, a student taking my course at University of Washington’s Nepal Studies Initiative asked how I balance between being an anthropologist and a human being. This question arose as we began wrapping up the course. Throughout this quarter, students had engaged with articles, book chapters, and audio-visual materials in order to understand ‘sacred Himalaya.’ Our lively class discussions were filled with arguments and cases of grounded realities, projected imaginaries, the self, and the study. So, the question of how to face challenging situations while remaining ‘ethical,’ ‘objective,’ and ‘relativist’ in the field seemed like a natural progression of our class discussion.
“It’s not easy,” I replied. “I try.”
Humor helps. Just as I struggled to answer my student’s question, I learned about the Sherpas’ superhuman ability. On Monday, news of the article, “Metabolic Basis to Sherpa Altitude Adaptation” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) started to circulate on global media. A simple Google search will take you to news articles linking the word ‘Sherpa’ with ‘superhuman.’ University of Cambridge shared the news of their Xtreme Everest team’s accomplishment on their website. “Himalayan powerhouses: how Sherpas have evolved superhuman energy efficiency,” the title reads. The study’s senior author was quoted in this news coverage. He explained, “Sherpas have spent thousands of years living at high altitudes, so it should be unsurprising that they have adapted to become more efficient at using oxygen and generating energy…when those of us from lower-lying countries spend time at high altitude, our bodies adapt to some extent to become more ‘Sherpa-like’, but we are no match for their efficiency.” A researcher, who had previously studied the Sherpas’ physiology was impressed by these research findings, and even described the Sherpas as “the Ferraris of the Himalayans.”
As I write this post, I wonder where and how I could discover my superhuman ability. My husband, also a Sherpa and a registered nurse, who has been unsuccessfully trying to get me to one of the mountains here in the State of Washington, might just question the authenticity of my Sherpa blood after reading the article.
Unfortunately, humor is not always readily available. The devastating earthquake of 2015 literally shook my world. Villages I visited, as a young girl, were gone. Dharahara, the tower that marked the city center, was gone. The temples that offered me space to enjoy tranquility amid the chaos of bustling Kathmandu city were gone. I could document the loss, but I could not remain unaffected as I did so.
There is also no humor in reading about the lives lost on Mount Everest. There is no humor in learning about the record number of climbing permits given for the mountain. There is no humor in finding that Sherpas who successfully summit are denied certificates. There is no humor in the realization that to be treated fairly, one has to hold a protest meeting at Everest base camp.
It is not easy to quietly take notes.
More than a year after visiting the priest, I still think of his statement. How should I have responded? Who should I have responded to? In the neighboring village, on that trip, I met a woman eager to show us the secluded shelter for menstruating women. The practice of Chaupadi was alive. This shelter made of cement was ‘modern,’ unlike the dark caves, where the women used to stay before. She appeared proud of the place—a sign that the community was moving forward. “If we stop the practice,” she explained, “gods will be angry.”
I thought of her, earlier this year, when I read the New York Times article, “In Nepal, a Monthly Exile for Women”.
A month ago, Savage Minds invited me to guest blog for the month of May. I wondered what I should write about. Should it be a summary of my most recent fieldwork; a description of “sacred landscape’; human dimensions of climate change in the Himalayas?
I settled on the question: What kind of anthropologist am I? The untangling attempt to answer the question led me to better understanding the self. At first, I resisted the personal pronoun ‘I,’ and the reflexive approach of ‘looking in the mirror.’ But without the reflexive ‘I,’ there was no knowing what kind of anthropologist I am.
Understanding “another life world using the self—as much of it as possible—as the instrument of knowing” (Ortner 2006), and remaining “aware of how power relations continue to operate, not merely in anthropological research, but more importantly in the larger world” (Mascia-Lees and Black 2000) were what I found myself doing. That is the kind of anthropologist I am.
Thank you for reading the blog posts, and sharing them with others. Your comments, although I did not respond to them directly, have influenced my thoughts. Thank you!
Writing these posts has been an unexpectedly enjoyable exercise. It has made me a better version of whatever it is that I am.
A Ferrari of the Himalayans
Mascia-Lees, F. E., and Black, N. J. 2000. Gender and Anthropology. Long Grove: Waveland Press.
Ortner, S. B. 2006. Anthropology and Social Theory: Culture, power, and the acting subject. Durham: Duke University Press.