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Nepal Himalaya, 2009

The Cold War at 8,848 meters

The summits of the tallest mountains in the world, all of which are located in the great Himalayan range from northeastern India to Pakistan, remained inviolate until the 1950s and early sixties, when all of them were climbed for the first time in. In 1950, Annapurna in central Nepal became the first peak higher than 8,000 meters to be climbed (there are fourteen in all) when a French team reached the summit. Next, in 1953, a British expedition reached the top of the highest of them all, Mt. Everest or Chomolungma.1

It was by an accident of timing and geopolitics that these great mountains were first climbed in the fifties and sixties. Major European and American expeditions had made attempts on several of the 8,000-meter peaks in the twenties and thirties, but then the outbreak of World War II put these expeditions to a halt. When they resumed after the war, the Cold War had begun, and the subsequent mountaineering conquests took place in the context of this global struggle of ideologies.

In 1960, the Chinese government launched an expedition on the north side of Mt. Everest, which stands in Tibet. This was the first expedition on the Tibetan side since China had annexed the country in 1950. The government reported that three climbers reached the top of the mountain and left a plaster bust of Chairman Mao there as a memento of their visit. Mountaineers in the West generally doubted that the Chinese party had actually made it to the summit, as the only accounts released were party propaganda with a little mountaineering on the side. (The Chinese summiting is more widely accepted as veritable now.) Whether or not the Chinese climbers really reached the top, the expedition was a geopolitical coup, an assertion of China’s sovereignty over Tibet.

Three years later, a very different expedition attacked Everest from the southern side, through Nepal. This was the American Mount Everest Expedition 1963, or AMEE for short. Well-equipped, well-staffed (with 20 expedition members, 37 high-altitude Sherpas, and 909 porters), and well-funded by donations and government grants, the expedition was also highly-publicized. The expedition leader, Norman Dyhrenfurth, was a cinematographer by trade; he produced a movie about the climb and got Orson Welles to narrate it. One of the six members of the team to reach the summit was National Geographic Society photograph Barry Bishop. The expedition even had its own chronicler, mountaineer-author James Ramsey Ullman, who wrote a piece for Life magazine, the script of Dyhrenfurth’s movie, and a full book, Americans on Everest (which is a good read).

In his official account, Ullman repeatedly emphasized that AMEE’s climbing of Everest was not a nationalistic endeavor. For example, this passage:

The Chinese, on their climb of three years before, had declared that “we thought of Comrade Mao, took strength, and moved onward and upward”; but such sentiment would not do for AMEE. With due respect to our Chief Executive, and due allowance for the politics of the various team members, it is highly doubtful if anyone was climbing Everest for the President of the United States.2

Yet even if the men who actually climbed the mountain did not do so for national glory, the expedition had to present itself in a national context in order to get funding. The American public and government asked: Why climb Mt. Everest? It has already been climbed. To which AMEE replied: Because it has never been climbed by Americans before.

The rhetoric convinced individuals, mountaineering clubs, companies, and the US government to donate $400,000 to the expedition. The State Department funded expedition costs in Nepal with a grant of $82,000 in Indian rupees, which the US government had earned from the sale of American wheat and other agricultural commodities to India under the PL-480 Food for Peace program. The State Department also funded a goodwill tour of selected expedition Sherpas around the United States after the climb.

A great, friendly American expedition to Asia aligned well with then-President John F. Kennedy’s internationalist agenda, which also produced the Peace Corps and USAID. When Kennedy presented the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal to the expedition after the successful climb, he emphasized the international character of Himalayan mountaineering, citing other nations that had preceded the Americans to Everest. But he omitted the Chinese, as China was on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain and this was the Cold War after all.

  1. The two actual summiters were Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa from Darjeeling. []
  2. James Ramsey Ullman, Americans on Everest: The Official Account of the Ascent Led by Norman G. Dyhrenfurth (New York: J.B. Lippincott, 1964), 237-38. []

Ethnic radio in America

Bolly 92.3, the San Francisco Bay Area’s Bollywood radio station, is a new manifestation of an American phenomenon as old as radio itself: the ethnic radio station.

Radio exploded onto the American scene in the boom years of the 1920s. Radio was the defining consumer product of this consumeristic decade, and listening to the radio was an activity for the masses, not the upper class. Listening to the radio was also a social activity. In the early years of radio, the first family in the neighborhood to buy a receiver set could expect neighbors to come over to listen to the radio. (In much the same way, as I observed eight years ago, houses in the Garo Hills with television sets or DVD players would attract the neighbors to come watch.)

In the first half of the 1920s, radio was effectively unregulated, decentralized, and community-oriented. In Chicago, only 4% of stations were commercial broadcasters; the rest of the stations were operated by labor unions, church groups, and other noncommercial community organizations.1

Radio was also popular among ethnic communities. Before 1924, immigration from Europe was virtually unrestricted, and immigrants flocked to the northern industrial cities. They settled in ethnic communities, where they could shop, worship, and socialize in their native languages. Chicago had German, Polish, Italian, Lithuanian, and other ethnic enclaves. In the 1920s, these communities had their own radio stations, which promoted community cohesion by giving people something to listen to in their native languages.

Radio was regulated under the 1927 Radio Act, and at the same time the airwaves began to get more commercialized, with companies sponsoring branded programs. Ethnic radio stations started to disappear as NBC and CBS took over the airwaves. Before long, ethnic neighborhoods began to disappear too, as their inhabitants started to assimilate into the American mainstream.

But neither ethnic neighborhoods nor their radio stations disappeared entirely. The immigrants who began coming to the United States in large numbers after immigration law reform in 1965—such as the Indians of the Bay Area—set up their own radio stations. There is at least one Slavic-language radio station still broadcasting in Chicago, Polski FM. I was happy to run across it on a rental car radio in northern Indiana last month. Whether it is a survivor or a revival (I couldn’t say which it is, since its broadcast and website are naturally all in Polish), it perpetuates a century-old tradition of ethnic radio in Chicago.

  1. All details about radio in Chicago are from Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 135-140. []

Bollywood over the Bay

Earlier this year, while driving someplace in the San Francisco Bay Area and scanning on her car radio, my sister-in-law stumbled across Bolly 92.3, a station playing Bollywood music. Even though she had no idea what the lyrics were saying, she thought the music sounded cheery and left the radio tuned to that station.

Bolly 92.3 was the first dedicated Bollywood music station I had ever heard of in the United States, so I was eager to listen to it once I’d learned about it. I got my chance when my brother and I drove from San Francisco to Death Valley in February. We listened to Bolly 92.3 as long as we could, until we drove out of range of the station. In the hour or so before we lost the signal, we heard a range of songs in different styles. I didn’t recognize any of the songs, but I did recognize the musical styles, which included:

  • Movie tunes with harmonium and tablas, and rich Hindustani lyrics. (Hindustani was the common language across North India before Partition, part Hindi and part Urdu.)
  • Hip-hop with simple and dumb lyrics, and a liberal application of autotune.
  • Indie music with guitars and strings, and Hindi lyrics.
  • Romantic nineties movie songs with tablas, flutes, and echoing (and shrill) female vocals.
  • Dance songs with synth and tabla, and very repetitive lyrics.

Bolly 92.3 is a commercial station, and the breaks between every few songs featured advertisements for law firms, realty agencies, and other businesses owned by Indian-Americans in the Bay Area. (Later, my sister-in-law also heard an ad for a stove hood designed to handle the high levels of frying demanded by Indian cuisine.)

For all the diversity of Indian culture, Bollywood is an overpowering, omnipresent cultural monolith, and Bollywood music is part of the background noise of the Indian environment. Spend any time in India, and you will find the same songs following you wherever you go: booming across the neighborhood from marriage gardens, thumping from taxi and bus radios, or playing tinnily from mobile phones at tea stalls or in train coaches. Some megahit songs have a limited shelf life, and are played over and over and over again before disappearing. (There was a time last year when I thought my head would explode if I ever heard this song or this song again.) Other songs are evergreens, enjoying decades of popularity (like this one and this one).

From all the exposure I’ve had to Bollywood music (willing and otherwise), I was surprised not to recognize any of the songs I heard on Bolly 92.3. If I listened long enough, I’d surely hear something I knew. But just my short experience illustrates an important truth: diaspora communities are never the same as the parent culture. Not only do the Indian-Americans of the Bay Area have to adapt to American culture by driving minivans and living in tract housing, they also have a different relationship with Indian culture, for the simple reason that they are not in India.

When it comes to relating to their traditional cultures, members of a diaspora are sometimes more conservative. As the parent culture changes, emigrants try to freeze their culture in the same state that it was in when they left. This is why (as I am told) Gujaratis in Gujarat are content to use costume jewelry at their weddings, but Gujaratis in East Africa would never dream of using anything but gold.

There may be some of this cultural conservatism among Indian-Americans of the Bay Area, and this may in part explain why I didn’t recognize any of the songs on Bolly 92.3. But diasporic communities need not stay frozen in the past, either. They can continue to develop their traditional cultures on their own lines, parallel to but separate from the parent culture. This is happening for Indians in North America; in Toronto, at least, there is a big Punjabi hip-hop industry. Toronto music has even made its way back to India, and not just Punjab. I once spent more than an hour watching surreal music videos from Toronto in a restaurant in Assam, of all places.

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