Wednesday, February 16, 2011


I'll be back soon with detailed accounts of our recently concluded Southeast Asian adventures, but for now be sated with this conversation I had with a former student on facebook chat:

Me: Have board exam results come out yet?

Kuenga: Yap

Me: How did you do?

Kuenga: Sir

Kuenga: Not that gud

Me: I'm sure it was ok

Kuenga: Sir

Me: What is it, Kuenga? Or are you just typing "sir" after everything you say? You don't have to do that

Kuenga: Ahha

No sir

(Also, he says he passed his board exams and wants to go to college, which I consider a win)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Write your own damn blog posts, I'm at the beach

OK, fine. After a year of not blogging enough because of stress, my excuse now is excessive relaxation.

This is the opposite reaction almost everyone in the world has, of course, in traveling from the serene Himalayas to their hyper-populated neighbors. The theme of the year has been anchoring, that most deeply human phenomenon in which your happiness is entirely relative, based not on some fundamental quality of your identity but on your tangible experiences and exposure to a certain set of circumstances; it's the phenomenon that explains why millionaires are not ecstatic all the time, and in fact many are rather depressed. This can only begin to explain to all of you how being constantly offered sure scams, tourist-trap accommodations, and suspect aid is both a comfort and a relief to me.

The most difficult and most successful teaching I did all year involved two weeks in which I tried to teach the concept of critical analysis using my least favorite part of the syllabus, a propaganda speech by Bhutan’s prime minister about the concept of Gross National Happiness. In it, he shares an anecdote in which the government tries a pilot program of giving rural farmers genetically modified, high-yield rice. After a single year, one farmer has doubled his rice production. Thrilled, the Department of Agriculture begins talking with him about expansion, increased labor, etc. The farmer, though, interrupts them mid-consult to declare that instead of producing twice as much rice, he would simply take a year off from farming and live at the same standard as before.

The prime minister wanted us to see this as a sign that the Bhutanese do not care for material wealth so much as their own contentment. (I used it to prod the students about the definability of happiness, and the impossibility of absolute equality, for which the concept of anchoring played an important role.) Safely out of Bhutan, I can now admit that my initial reaction was, Damn, that guy is lazy. Having filtered my perceptions of Asia solely through Bhutan, I was slow to judge. As expected, having spent less than a full week in India, I am now ready to judge the hell out of them.
If Bhutan is content, India is the opposite. People here do not seem unhappy on the whole, but they are all striving. In Bhutan, store owners would frequently tell you to go next door to buy something they sell rather than stand up and get it for you. Thus, it has been something of a comfort to walk down the street and be yelled at by twenty consecutive vendors. Surely it is a betrayal of my capitalist upbringing and prejudices, but it’s just nice to see people hustling so hard to make something of themselves.

That said, big-city India is incredibly depressing. Chennai offered very little in the way of non-Indian-food-related fun. (The Wikitravel introduction to Chennai reads something like, “So, you have arrived as a tourist in Chennai! Why did you do that? There is nothing to see here. Perhaps you are seeking a job in the IT sector?”) Once we made our way to Trivandrum and now Aleppey, though, it’s been much more relaxing. Trivandrum would still be considered a medium-sized city by most, but we were able to wander up and down almost the whole thing, cover all the non-temple sites in the tourist pamphlet (sorry, we’re just done with temples), and spend a glorious half day at the beach. Aleppey isn’t thrilling, but we haven’t yet taken a boat through the backwaters of the jungle, which is what you come here to do.

In general, I’ve been very happy striking a balance between getting tourist things done and doing nothing, which we feel we deserve after our year of hard work. It’s a tenuous balance, given we may not actually deserve it, all of us being unemployed now and whatnot. But for now we are not worrying about that, because it is 85 degrees out, there is a beach, delicious Indian food is $1 per meal, and, for a brief, shining, glorious moment, we do not work with children.

This country good

The rate of signage in India is approximately 1 sign per square area that will fit a sign. These are my favorites, or the most confusing ones.

"Doctors' relaxation center"

"Shoppers Shop"

"GOLD!!!" (this one is pretty frequent, and makes me question Adi's claim that there are no Jews in India)

"Witch shake" (on a juice shop signboard)

"Wine Shop (A Government of Kerala Undertaking)"

I like this country.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Lack of wood fire

Almost overnight, it became too cold to be a decent human being anymore. Right around December 1st, it started to get so frigid that life would only be tolerable under a highly specific set of conditions, most of which involved huddling, inactivity, and Coronation Silver Jubilee rum.
There is some righteous indignation involved here. I mean, it’s not really that cold, not much colder than winters on the East Coast, but there are factors that make it seem considerably more painful. Insulation is not a concept here. Our apartment is made of plaster and cement, and many of the window frames warped over the seasons such that some of them don’t close all the way anymore, allowing an icy draft to permeate that entire place. Our Chinese coil heater has been some consolation, but only when we are crowded directly around it, just like hobos around a trash-can fire, right down to the unkempt beards and two-dollar bottles of whiskey. (The best that to happen to us recently was the purchase of a “Heat Convector,” which the box promises is both “powder coated” and “computer tested.” It’s called a “Blow Hot,” a kind of name which might have caused embarrassing misconceptions in less chaste Asian countries.)
In these conditions, your first thought, of course, is about the many luxuries you took for granted in your cushy Western life. You don’t think about where the water from your taps comes from until it comes directly from a glacial lake. That strand of thought passed fairly quickly (it’s such a cliché.) What’s been sticking in my mind is the idea that the formalities and social graces we hold so dear are not based on any kind of God-given cultural superiority but on the fact that we have hot water readily available. What can I do? I take pride in being a hygienic, highly civil person, but doing laundry in the sink is physically painful. After two socks, my hands are throbbing and numb. There is a point where my deep-seated need to be respected by those around me is superseded by my desire to possess working extremities that I can feel at any given time. Sometimes when I talk to my other white friends here, who all live in much nicer apartments in town, I see the looks of 17th-century British ambassadors talking about the local peoples of the Orient. “A smelly, savage people…they wear the same shirt for days at a time and spend much time laying about in bed, shameless of their godless, primitive ways. Send Bibles.” Well, no one is born a savage. You have to go awhile without hot water first.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Is it?

You may have noticed that I have not made a post on this blog recently. You may not have.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

12 Science: making my life worth living

I'm not sure exactly what I've ingrained into these students, but it's something. Exchanges like these make getting up in the morning doable.

Me (staring directly at student): Ugyen, do the assignment.
Ugyen: Sir, I can see your soul through your eyes.
Me: (staring menacingly at student from close range)
Ugyen's desk-mate (somberly): Sir's soul is red with the blood of innocents.

Fun recent tangents and discussions:
--why Disney is evil, even though The Lion King was a good movie
--why drug laws in the U.S. promote institutional racism and unjust class differentiation
--why I am better at tongue twisters than you, my students, are
--why I cannot get you an American girlfriend by email (this one was for the teachers)
--how I will try to get you an American girlfriend in downtown Thimphu (for both teachers and students)
--how logic works (for everyone)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

An Open Letter to the Bhutanese People

Dear Bhutanese,

I have now lived in your country for nearly seven months. Perhaps the most repeated theme is that of your culture, and the tenuous position it occupies. At the forefront of every modern Bhutanese dialogue is the fraught dichotomy of tradition vs. modernization. From teaching methods to clothing to our students' essays, every tiny facet of modern life here bears the weight of both Bhutanese cultural pride and the younger generation's urge to Westernize.

It is a near-impossible problem. It seems that every decision, every minute action, represents a declaration of purpose: everything either gives the statement "Traditional culture is what makes this country what it is" or "We are an economically vibrant country who cannot afford to curb its development."

I occupy a bizarre position between these two poles. I cannot help yearning for the comforts of homogenized Westernization, but I cannot deny that the national dress, the language, the way Buddhism is integrated into everyday life--these are the things that lend Bhutan its aura of magic and timelessness. I am certainly a modernist, and a realist, but at the same time, I live in a place which seemingly exists solely to show the meaninglessness of capitalist excess. How can I whine about burrito cravings when I pass wild horses and incense-waving monks on the way home from work?

These are difficult issues in an infinitely complex time. In conclusion, I would like to say one thing to all of you in this wonderful place, a single message borne on the wings of hope and carved from the wood of compassion:


Thank you, and God bless.