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Himalayan Encounters (Yuqing Yang)

November 14, 2009

            

nepal_himalaya

Tigers of the Snow

Vincanne Adams’ book Tigers of the Snow and Other Virtual Sherpas: An Ethnography of Himalayan Encounters (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996) is an ethnography talking about the interaction between Westerners and the Sherpas of northeast Nepal. Adams notes that tour brochures issued by the Nepalese government Ministry of Tourism in the 1990s titles Sherpas “Tigers of the snow”, a metaphor originally used by the Westerners to describe these mountainous people. It seems that the unique landscape of Himalaya really captured outsider’s imagination.In order to live up to the image of exotic “Other” desired by the Westerners, the remote and high altitude Buddhist population of Sherpas adjusted their relationship with the mountain. Adam’s book begins with the story of her friend Pasang Lhamu, the first Nepalese woman who reached the summit of Everest but never made it to descend. The death of her friend made Adam wonder about the motive of this Sherpa woman in a culture originally in awe of the mountain. In fact, Sherpas considered mountain climbing as taboo bearing in mind that the mountains were gods and goddess. The resolution to summit Everest is the Sherpas’ accommodation of the Western interpretation of the landscape, or more accurately, the human-mountain relationship.

 The Himalayan encounters are ambiguous. On the one hand, Sherpas have to be like Westerners. “Intrepid climbers” are a label attached by others who wanted to overcome the mountain. Sherpas characteristics are thus defined by endurance and enviable skills as “Tigers of the snow.” They were at first hired as guides and porters after climbing was introduced into the region, and the practice was gradually incorporated by the local. Pasang Lhamu, the Sherpa woman, was posthumously acclaimed a national hero due to her achievement. On the other hand, Sherpas have to be unlike Westerners so that they can become deserving recipient of development aid. People who live in the high Himalayas are poor, unhealthy, and uneducated, and these features conform to the expectations of those in search of the “Otherness.”

 

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One Comment leave one →
  1. jnoyce permalink
    November 18, 2009 2:11 am

    Yuqing! Your post made me think of the essay I am currently teaching in my WR122 course, Walker Percy’s “The Loss of the Creature.” In this text, Percy argues that we lose sovereignty over our own experiences as a result of the “symbolic complex” that conditions our perceptions of them. So, postcards, tour guides, National Geographic, etc., create expectations that we expect to be met when traveling to a “special place.” It sounds like this might be the dynamic that motivated the Western idea that the sherpas are “intrepid climbers” and “tigers of the snow.” These descriptors express the set of perceptions that Westerners presumably had (and have) of these mountain people. Surely, if one were to travel to the Himalayas and discover a lack of “tigers in the snow” and all that is attached to that concept, one would be disappointed. Your example reveals that these Western expectations can have the result of changing indigenous peoples’ behavior in order to manifest the “symbolic complex” that we expect of them. And there are probably very real material benefits to doing so!

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