Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Caught In Two Cultures

One thing about Jamling Tenzing that continued to impress me throughout the book was the way he handled being stuck in between Sherpa culture and American culture.  I had assumed that it would in some way become problematic, particularly that perhaps the other sherpas on the climb would become jealous of his more glamorous and high profile position on being on the IMAX team, even though he himself was not in it for the glory, and was more than willing to do his fair share of carrying the heavy loads.

As is so often the case, however, trying to assimilate to two distinct cultures often leaves one alienated from either.  Describing his time in America, Tenzing says he was "caught in two cultures, as if [his] head was on a different continent than [his] body." He discusses his classmates at this American college having no social restraint, an incredible amount of material possessions, and a total lack of gratitude.

However, to truly gain the education he wanted, he needed to leave his community.  This is a common theme for Sherpa's, as Tenzing discusses the fact that most Sherpa's are financially comfortable but ask climbers to help send their children to schools in Kathmandu or overseas.  Inevitably, therefore, when Tenzing returns to his home community, he now feels an outsider.  Early in the book, Tenzing goes to visit the family lama: "I could see he had his bed, his attendant, his texts, and nothing else. I envied him in his simplicity, for in it he had clearly found peace...I immediately felt burdened and confused, by contrast, and ashamed for these feelings."

Tenzing is so grateful for his education and exposure to the world outside of the community, and yet paradoxically it has taken him away from this simpler, peaceful life.

1 comment:

  1. I too thought about the tension between spirituality, culture, and education while reading this book. Tenzing went to the United States to get a better education and have more opportunities, yet arguably he was more fulfilled through his spiritual realizations on and after Everest, where he re-discovered Buddhism and understood his relationship with his father. It raises the question of which is more important: religious and cultural ties or knowledge acquisition and a college education. I guess it depends on who is answering the question. From an economic standpoint one would argue the importance of furthering one's education, but from a traditional perspective, clearly a lifestyle where one maintains one's culture is more appropriate. Which is more fulfilling though? By sending native Sherpas abroad to further their education, what cultural qualities do they lose, and is this worth it?