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My Identity
Sonam G. Sherpa

This piece, for the sake of understanding each other better as human beings in general and the different races within Himalayan community specifically, is a compilation of a few personal incidents that were experienced by the writer. The article is not a reflection of the views of the general population of any race or community for that matter.

On a trip to Dharamsala, India, in the summer of 1991, the wife of my cousin gave birth to a baby boy. On this happy occasion, I went to see her at the Delek hospital. Barely a day old, the bundle of joy, the baby lay beside the exhausted mother. Fruits and cookies or biscuits as they called them in India, brought in by visitors were scattered all around the private room. After exchanging pleasantries, and commenting on how beautiful the little boy she had just given birth to was she remarked, “Sherpa babies look like monkeys!!!”.

Not only was I taken aback but, was quite furious to hear such blatant mockery of my people. There were a few questions which came to mind. Did she know that I was a Sherpa too? Just because I spoke Tibetan, did she think I was not a Sherpa? Did she know that many of her husband’s relatives were Sherpas? Was it because of a few Sherpas that she had dealt with, she somehow had a negative perception of them and that had made her comment in that manner? Did it even matter to her what ethnic group I preferred to be?

I was a Tibetan for her, and she must have figured, it was ok to make such comments amongst Tibetans.

Her husband, my cousin, was born in Dharamsala. His father is a first cousin of my father and both their grand parents had immigrated from Gyarong, Tibet, to Nepal, gradually becoming Sherpas. My father and most of his relatives still living in Nepal are as pure Sherpas as they come. But my uncle, who had moved to Dharamsala many years ago and settled there with his family, had become ‘Tibetan’. Making everyone born to his family and other relatives that moved to India, Tibetans as well. Well, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if their perception were contrary to mine.

From an early age, I joined Tibetan schools and spoke Tibetan but I had never met any relatives of mine who could speak Tibetan. I was in quite a shock when the irst time someone related to me spoke in Tibetan but did not speak Nepali at all or spoke very little of it. My cousins in India grew up as Tibetans, without ties to their relatives in Nepal.

Around 1994, after a meeting for a fund raising party, some of the board members of the Tibetan Youth Association (as RTYC of NY and NJ were known then) went to a restaurant, the Tibetan Kitchen in Manhattan, New York. As we sat down at a table, my waiter-friend came over and began to tease me by making some negative and stereotypical comments about Sherpas. To which, as I always did, replied back and said something not so flattering about Tibetans. This was a bantering that went back and forth between us each time we met, and was always followed by pleasantries. This was our own personal way of a friendly exchange – a personal joke – that was shared between the two of us.

But a Tibetan friend who was sitting with me at that table took offense and exploded at me. “How dare you say such things about Tibetans to a Tibetan?”

I tried to explain to him that this was just in jest and we were only playing around with each other. He didn’t want to listen to any of my explanation even after my pointing out to him that he (my Tibetan waiter friend) was the one who started it and while it would sound negative, it was a personal joke between two friends. But this disturbed friend didn’t want to hear any of it and challenged me to a duel out side the restaurant which I accepted . The fight did not take place owing to the intervention of the others at the table.

This has always made me wonder that no matter how much I try to blend as a Tibetan, to some Tibetans I’ll always be a Nepali, which I am.

This aside, on another occasion, at a get together of Sherpa friends and families, speaking in Tibetan to a Tibetan friend (who’s married to a Sherpa lady), a Sherpa friend jumped on me and made a crude remark, “Why are you guys speaking in ‘Bhotey Bhasa’ (Tibetan language), speak Nepali”. This was the same person who on many occasions had labeled me a Tibetan in his attempt to exclude me from attending Sherpa functions. “Sonam is a Bhotey (Tibetan)”, was what I overheard him saying to people at a party.

My answer to him at this gathering was that the Nepali language wasn’t even our own language and that if he felt that speaking in “our language” was so important why did the fact that not everyone there spoke in our Sherpa language as totally unnoticed by him. Others present quickly resolved the hostilities and we continued to speak in a plethora of languages.

It is not easy for someone like me born as national in one country and growing up in the midst of another to always be defensive (although, I feel I am totally capable of distinguishing my own identity, it is oftentimes, others that make judgements about it).

It is not easy for someone like me born as national in one country and growing up in the midst of another to always be defensive (although, I feel I am totally capable of distinguishing my own identity, it is oftentimes, others that make judgements about it).

Being born in Nepal to a Sherpa father and a Tibetan mother, I grew up as a Nepali. As the majority of Nepal’s population is of Hindu religion and of a different race, they occasionally called us ‘Bhotey’ as in Tibetan, to which we would defend ourselves as not being one. Sherpa culture and religion is similar to that of the Tibetan’s but by birth and national origin we are Nepalese.

I started life in a boarding school in Kathmandu early. With my sister and I being the only Mongoloid students, we were often teased for being different, as children usually are. The rest of the school population was Nepalese of the Hindu faith, as in the Dravidian race. We were called Bhotey, an innocuous term for people from Tibet, but used derogatorily. My sister and I certainly didn’t come from Tibet. That was also a time when many Tibetans started moving to the Boudh Nath area, where a huge stupa stands. It is a holy place for people of Buddhist faith. This was also a neighborhood in the outskirts of Kathmandu, where local alcohol was sold openly. Although prohibited by the local law, officers looked the other way. One day a fight broke out between two Tibetans, who were intoxicated, that resulted in the death of one.

News spread like fire in the Kathmandu valley. Some of the consequences were ugly as children started calling me a ‘murderer’, which brought out the worst in me and having to fight those who accused me of such.

Just because a Tibetan murdered another Tibetan, my sister and I were teased as Tibetan murderers also. That brought out some kind of negative feelings in me for Tibetans, so much so that, I would play the part of ‘brave Chinese soldiers’ as depicted in the propaganda comic books and magazines sold in Nepal very cheaply. These were the publications that were heavily subsidized by the government of People’s Republic of China and sold in Nepal for a few rupees. As children played in the playgrounds, I would be one of the ruthless Chinese Red Armies, capturing and torturing Japanese (as in the imperial war) and Tibetans.

Playing a “brave Chinese army personnel” was a phase that went through in my boyhood age. No matter how hard I pretended to be a non-Tibetan, walking the streets of Kathmandu always invited catcalls from other boys or bullies in the street to call me, ‘Hey Bhotey’ which then was similar to calling the African Americans the “N” word.

Playing a “brave Chinese army personnel” was a phase that went through in my boyhood age. No matter how hard I pretended to be a non-Tibetan, walking the streets of Kathmandu always invited catcalls from other boys or bullies in the street to call me, ‘Hey Bhotey’ which then was similar to calling the African Americans the “N” word.

When I was attending the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in India, my nationality and being different was something that worked to my advantage. On a Losar day, on being woken up by a teacher to go to a monastery for early prayer ceremony and receiving the traditional share of ‘Khapseys’, I was able to fool him. Losar is a day to have fun. At that period of my life, nothing was more fun than to sleep late. So, being too lazy to get up early and justify my own crooked way of celebrating Losar by sleeping, when my teacher tried to wake me up, I told him that I was a Sherpa and that we didn’t celebrate Losar. He gasped and whispered, “Oh”, and left me alone to wake other students up.

From an early age, it seemed like others are always trying to make decisions for me as to what I am. Nepalese call me Tibetan, Tibetans call me Nepali and some call us “monkeys”.

Why can’t everyone just accept me for who I am? I am just a human being with just one identity, as in the name I was given in my birth?