Sherpas In The Possessive Voice

The deadly Khmbu Icefall.
The deadly Khmbu Icefall.

It’s a contentious spring in the Himalayas. Sherpas have decided that the 2014 Mt Everest climbing season is too dangerous, after the avalanche deaths of 16 high-altitude workers on April 18th.

I’m no expert on the affairs of the men and women that work on Everest, nor am I going to pretend to be.

But I have, over the years, noticed an interesting verbal tic in English-language writing on Himalayan mountaineering: not naming Sherpas at all, or naming them suspiciously late in the story.

We find out in this recent Associated Press piece that US mountaineer Jon Reiter was trekking through the notoriously dangerous Khumbu Icefall when his guide – identified repeatedly only as “his Sherpa” — pushed the 49-year-old out of the way of the deadly April 18th avalanche. The Daily Mail waits a good three paragraphs to name him. (The CNN article notes that this heroic man is properly named Dawa Sherpa).

This story, and others like it, bring to me this observation: Sherpas, even incredibly heroic ones, are perennially referred to in the possessive, as if they’re interesting, contract-subject luxury objects — somehow both more and less than a plain old “guide.”

A Sherpa guide at the Khumbu Icefall.
A Sherpa mountain guide (named Pem Dorjee Sherpa, per Wikipedia) at the Khumbu Icefall.

The possessive usage of “Sherpa” stands out particularly because our society has at least made some kind of effort to eliminate old White Man’s burden tropes from the language.

“My black boy,” “my punkhawallah,” “my coolie,” “my kaffir” and the like spring immediately to mind, as servile tropes that we in Western society once regularly used as a good bit of horrible colonial fun, but have by now mostly been purged from the language by decent, liberal humans.

But “Sherpas” are still someTHING that, for a temporal period of time, is “yours” — or at least that’s how the English usage of the term makes it sound.

Here’s a sentence I’ve read some variant on many times before, in my perusal of climbing writing: “I was out for a trek in Nepal when my Sherpa suggested we stop for a butter tea break.”

Not “My trekking guide, Lakpa Sherpa, suggested…”

Which is, of course, how one might refer to a guide of your own race in English.Say, “My trekking guide, Bob D. Smith, recently of  Palo Alto, suggested we stop and hella tear into those Clif bars.”

No, it’s “my” Sherpa, as if your relationship with this autonomous adult human being is considerably more intimate and exotic than a fairly pedestrian exchange of money for physically arduous services rendered.

The possessive terminology of “my Sherpa” is regularly used in a fond sort of way by people who fancy themselves as progressive, inclusive types who do lots of yoga and donate to charities. There’s even a New Jersey IT company called MySherpa.

I have yet to overhear one of these well-traveled, enlightened people fondly refer to their tour guide at Angkor Wat as “My Cambodian” or “my  coolie,” though Christ knows that I’m not ruling it out.

Perhaps the “owning” thing goes rather deep indeed.

As Jemima Diki Sherpa wrote on her excellent blog : “Still, it is undeniable that, in “post”-colonial democracies where ethnic minorities carry the burden of insidious and vicious prejudices at every turn, Sherpas are fortunate. Everyone loves us, everyone trusts us, and everyone wants their own collectable one of us. Internet listsicles call us ‘badass’ and we have a very large, very coveted piece of real estate in our back yard. It is a stereotype, sure, but a positive one.”

I’m quite willing to hear out the argument that the turn of phrase “my Sherpa” is not meant to turn people into possessions, and is instead a pleasant honorific. But I’d like to hear that argument from a Sherpa, not from one of the climbers that regularly uses their services.

Sure, it’s just language. Just terminology. But considering that the Sherpas are currently embroiled in a very public fight for recognition and increased wages, perhaps we should be taking a closer look at how they are addressed — and respected — by their Western clientele.

On a semi-personal note, different pay grades for local workers and international workers are an unsavory aspect of expat life Southeast Asia, where the operating logic is that it takes much more money to persuade a highly educated Western worker to give up their life of glamour and iPhones to reside in a foreign country with weird food.

Mt Everest.
Mt Everest.

I’ve definitely been paid more than local colleagues to do the same sort of thing. Most Southeast Asia expats have had the same experience. However. When you’re sitting side by side to someone in an office and doing the same sort of things, with the same level of proficiency — but one of you is foreign, and thus getting paid much more —  well, one wonders.

I would imagine the intensity of this discomfort and resentment is amped up considerably when your day job involves very regular exposure to being crushed to death by falling ice.

Something to think about.

At the very least, this horrible climbing disaster has led to an interesting public dialogue about Sherpas and the Western mania for conquering big, expense-heavy peaks.  Here’s some links to good writing.

Three Springs – Jemima Diki Sherpa

The Disposable Man: A Western History of Sherpas on Everest – Outside

Everest’s Sherpas Fear for Livelihood After Killer Avalanche –  The Guardian

Addendum: It has come to my attention that there are two Special Western Teenagers who are deeply, deeply butthurt that their Mystical Everest Dream has come to a traumatizing end. That’s because 16 people were uncool enough to up and die while paving the way for them to climb the mountain.

To which I say: wow, sucks to be you.


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