The Abuse of Kanchhi

by Emile Young (Denmark)

Making a local connection Nepal


Dai. I tasted the Nepali word on my tongue. There are few words so simple, yet so powerful. "Dai," I called again. "Big brother." The man who'd been trying to play with my hair just moments prior pulled back sharply. He waved the waiter over, "One beer. And bring her a milk tea. She's my kanchhi." Littlest sister. Perfect. I was in Nepal again. I came first as a tourist. Then again for a lover, and now I was back a fourth time. The job was simple, if physically demanding : shoot and write about an ice climbing festival. Complications , like an organizer's advances , were unwelcome. So imagine my relief when Santosh retreated to familial terms couched in a mutual understanding of sibling responsibility. I was no longer an unattached, unaccounted-for woman who was open game for his advances. I'd become his little sister. Over the next few days, Santosh would beckoned me over. He was a visionary with Musk-like propensities to drama. "My kanchhi," he'd proudly introduce me, hand too-heavy on my shoulders. A few inches from inappropriate. The others, in turn, would treat me with respect : not as a tourist, but as a strange little sister who didn't speak much Nepali.  His requests started small: could I help him word an email invitation to a press meeting? Then it was, could I shoot the meeting? Could I send him a few photos? I woke the next day to find my photos  plastered all over the Nepali news and internet without photo credit. My career may be fledgling, but I wasn't running a charity. He apologized, and I let it slide. But as we trekked to the climbing area on the Annapurna Circuit, I'd dread hearing that word. Kanchhi. It was inevitably followed by a request. Refusal meant a reprimand. I soon learned: his job as dai was to "take care" of me; my job as kanchhi was obedience. At the climbing area, about 3500m above sea level, the altitude was no joke. Walking to the toilet made me gasp for air. Small requests became all the harder. Could I do video interviews with each participant? They didn't want to leave the fire either. Come, kanchhi, sit next to your dai. I was deep in conversation with the videographer on how to split our work. Western-me would have just walked away. Kanchhi could not.  As kanchhi, I inhabited that ambiguous crevasse between tourist and local. See, when you're a tourist or even a perennial visitor, you can scratch up the surface, make a mess, and walk away. When you're there as often as I was, with so many vested social ties at stake, that's no longer an option. The tipping point was on the long trail down from the mountains. We were breaking trail through hip-deep snow. As we lifted each leg, the snow slid back in to cover the void. "Kanchhi! Kanchhi!" I heard from somewhere down the line behind me. We were walking close in single file to minimize the effort required to stomp the snow down and drag our feet into the next caving step. I ignored his calls. But they were coming closer. "Kanchhi!" Santosh breathed from right behind me. He'd stormed the line to give me his next instructions. I stepped off the trail and waved the videographer past me. "Kanchhi, take a video." I pointed out, my camera was at the bottom of my pack to protect it from the snow. He'd hired a videographer. And his iPhone X was perfectly up to the task. As each participant walked past me, my heart sank a little. It was hard enough to keep up with all the strong Nepali mountain guides. Santosh wanted me at the end of the line videoing the others leaving me behind. Then the toughest part: once i repacked my camera, I'd have to walk faster than before to catch up with everyone else. "No," I said. "Enough." I left him there in the snow, calling after me and questioning my disobedience. His voice picked up, asserting his power and ego through volume. I ignored him and walked on, leaving kanchhi behind in the deep snow on the mountains that day.