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 There is a point where my deep-seated need to be respected by those around me is superseded by my desire to possess working extremities that I can feel at any given time.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.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Sorry that I haven’t been on top of blogging recently. Or ever. But honestly, most of my brain, will, and hand power have been taken up in teaching, and if I used this space for my own personal catharsis it would all be whining about teaching and how hard it is. It’s hard, by the way.
Here’s a small episode on a more positive note.
Maybe a month ago we had three Bhutanese friends over for dinner. We only had several pounds of rice, so it was crisis mode time. We asked a few people to bring rice with them, but they all came late, so I had to go begging to our landlords.
I’ve written about Dawa before—she was the meek, friendly, absurdly selfless woman who woke me up to give me tea. Her husband Tsewang is also ridiculously generous. As an example—we live on his property on an apple orchard. We pick apples most days for breakfast. Yesterday he invited us in to his house and gave us a giant tote bag full of at least 50 apples. We declined them, already guilty for having illicitly stolen from him, and he responded “but you never pick apples! Come on, just a few!” We left with ten. It’s hard not to feel guilty living around these people, who don’t drink but keep wine and arra on hand to forcefully offer us whenever we enter their house. We’d feel guilty even if they weren’t so nice, because they rent us a room in this peaceful family neighborhood, and...I mean, would you want to rent us a room?
So I bashfully knock on the door and ask to borrow some rice. Tsewang says they probably have some to spare, and leads me to the kitchen where they have an industrial-sized vat half full of rice, or roughly enough rice to feed an anorexic Bhutanese midget for several days, assuming he is on a religious fast for at least one of them. They fill me up a big bowl and I thank them profusely. At this point, as casually as I can, I take out a few ngultrums—about the cost of one kg. of rice—and place it unsurreptitiously on the counter. And then we do the most comical money dance ever.
Speaking little English, Dawa picks up the bills and gently places them back in my hand. I push them back at her. She pushes them back more intently. We go back and forth a few times, both of us smiling widely. Then I make a bold gambit: I simply throw the bills onto the far side of the counter, 5 feet away from Dawa, and run towards the door, bowl of rice in hand.
I will never forget the next moment. It’s one of those instants when time slows down and your perception sharpens, like a near-death experience, or a hit of really good PCP, or both. I am walking briskly towards the front door, yelling my thanks, and smiling at one of the adorable children watching TV in the front room. And then, with the Earth-shaking charge of a genetically reconstructed T. Rex, I feel an impending presence behind me. With a guttural roar—“NOOOOOOO!”—this mild-mannered housewife full-body tackles me from behind. All 110 pounds of her come swooping down in a Viking rage. I barely keep the rice bowl from completely tipping over. The most emotion I’ve ever seen from this woman was mild pleasantness when serving butter tea, but at this moment, she is king. Having a death-grip on my torso, she turns me around, and with a triumphant grin she spikes the bills forcefully into the rice, as if to say, WHAT NOW, BITCH! I OWN YOU! I AM THE MOST HOSPITABLE!
People in pickup basketball games here sometimes apologize when they drive past you.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

He came, I saw

Last Monday, His Majesty the Fifth Druk Gyalpo of Bhutan Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (HMTFDGOBJKNW) visited our school. If you have never lived in a country with a Dragonkingocracy, let me assure you: it was a really big deal. We spent a solid week postponing regular life to spit-shine every aspect of the school and our lives, from having my kids draw pictures to tape over their desk graffiti to holding numerous practices for the welcoming ceremony to setting up a special chair to assembling a fruit basket. We even set some of our Indian workers to polishing grout off the floor with what actually looked like a toothbrush. (By the way, if you have never seen a monk lovingly assemble a fruit basket, I recommend you find some way to witness this sight. It is among the last truly awe-inspiring phenomena left in the world.)

After three days of false alarms, His Majesty arrived on Monday. We gathered at school forty-five minutes early, to stand in our special assembly formation. Everyone had highly specific bowing routines to go through, which had been practiced at length, leaving the white people in a mildly awkward position: how should we greet the king? Do we bow like everyone else, but without having the ritual scarves the sweep on the ground? Do we bow halfway? We turned to our all-knowing Principal for guidance.

“Ah, yes, the non-Bhutanese,” he said, his voice oozing authority, confidence, definitiveness. “You can greet his majesty however you want.”

Let me say at this point that I did, largely, know what to expect from H.M. Many of our whitey friends have met him; some are even close with him, or have enjoyed his company at non-official social calls. Though the Bhutanese preparations for his visit fairly glowed with reverence, I was most excited just to talk to an extremely intelligent, highly educated, worldly Bhutanese person about the many problems in the educational system and country at large. As I unsuccessfully directed my kids to do—to (actual) protestations of “Sir, I have no opinions;” “Sir, the country has no problems;” “Sir, we do not have strong feelings about things”—I racked my brain to prepare biting but respectful questions about why certain things in Bhutan’s status quo were run the way they were. I knew the king loved white people because they did not bow and scrape to him; I’d heard time and again that he relished honest feedback and near-equal treatment. I was pulsing with excitement at the prospect of an in-depth conversation with a Bhutanese person about important issues of our time; in other words, a conversation that did not follow the three Standard Bhutanese Conversation Tracks of

1. “So, are you married?”

2. “So, you are enjoying Bhutan?”

3. “We must preserve our traditions and culture, but also there is development. It is very difficult.”

So, he came. He gave a well-spoken but clearly oft-repeated speech to the kids about taming the dragon within their hearts. (Which led to a week of awkward, unanswerable questions from the lower school about whether dragons were real.) The students left assembly for class. And in the cool glare of the early-morning sun, the Dragon King ambled (majestically) over to the rigid line of teachers. In a veritable orgy of auspiciousness, I was Teacher On Duty (acting principal) that day, and thus first in line. So it was directly at me, making Dragon-Kingly eye contact, towards which he opened the royal mouth. Screwing my courage to the sticking point, I prepared for the conversation of a lifetime, an interchange in which I would simultaneously charm my way into the royal family’s good graces and also change the future of the country with my incisive observations about its societal practices. In what I knew would be a moment I’d always remember, he looked directly at me with the dreamy royal eyes, squaring the royal waistline to my own, and with a vibration of the royal vocal chords, he said:

“So, are you married? Are you enjoying Bhutan?”

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Low content post

The best work my students have produced since before midterm break is the following metaphor:

"Bhutanese students are like ema-datse because they make foreigners sick."

I have realized I am very susceptible to tangents in class, because I am usually willing to indulge the one or two students who are in any way curious about anything. In the last three weeks I have tried to explain the Singularity, the sociological differences between Judaism and Christianity, and tautological arguments to kids who took two classes to understand haikus. Last period I spent five minutes explaining why jet-propelled aircraft cannot hover. I have some improving to do, teaching-wise.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Inauspicious return

So, it's been an absurd amount of time since I last blogged. My apologies. There have been some truly interesting things going on, our summer-break backpacking trip, touched on briefly by Zeb being the most prominent. As of now, I have a cold, one and a half cats, a new temporary roommate, and a cup of fermented millet-buckwheat juice called tong-ba. His Majesty the Fifth Dragon King is coming to visit the school on Monday, and we've spent the majority of the previous week preparing for it.

Teaching is as frustrating and unrewarding as ever. More, perhaps. Still, I'm at peace, largely due to a slowly but consistently increasing interest in Buddhist ideology. I am far from practicing--meditation still baffles me--but more than anything I have found that the nuances of Buddhist thought support and reinforce ideas that I have always found to be fundamentally true. Reading and talking about Buddhism has just made me think more about them, and about myself. In the process, I think I am starting to strengthen some of my good habits and begin the long journey towards eliminating the many bad ones. While I may not stay here for the rest of my life, I hope I carry with me forever the emphasis on introspection and self-improvement created not only by Buddhism but simply by living in such a remote and timeless place.

More substantive (and more entertaining) blogging coming, I swear.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Seriously though: if the U.S. does not beat Algeria, EVERYONE is getting cut

"Sir, can I go to toilet?"

"No. If you leave the room, you will not be allowed to finish the test."

"Sir, please, it is an emergency."

"An emergency? As in, you feel that you are in serious medical danger?"

"Yes sir. Very serious."

"Do you feel like there is a greater than 50% chance you will die if you do not go to the bathroom before the test ends in 15 minutes?"


"Yes sir."

"Okay, you can go."

"Wait, let me finish this question."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Send them out

I tried to explain clowns to someone today. They understand class clowns, and clownish behavior, but I was thinking of a circus clown. Like, big red nose, seltzer-spouting flower pin, oversized shoes. How do you explain a clown?

Friday, June 18, 2010

If the U.S. does not beat Slovenia, I am going to cut somebody

I will not get into the details here, but basically, today somebody pulled the biggest Dick Move I have ever experienced in my life. I am defining Dick Move as a move that, by its dickish nature, identifies you as a huge, huge dick. That is all I care to say on the subject right now, except that this particular Move directly affects me and Zeb, and it would be catastrophic if it was not for Principal Karma, who is a saint.

I've been thinking a lot about what differentiates people on the most basic levels. I mean, we have some pretty good Bhutanese friends, good enough to really understand what motivates them. These friends are healthy, educated men in their mid-20s, so what motivates them is primarily sex and beginning a fruitful, prosperous career in order to attract a classier brand of woman to have sex with. There are some definite if subtle differences between us and the Bhutanese, though, however well we get along. I've started to conclude that what really makes the difference is not beliefs, background, or ideology. What makes the difference is priorities.

I've discovered something about myself in this first year of Real Life: I have a lot of pride in myself as a competent and professional person. Even if by nature I am basically a lazy slob, when I have a job to do, some evolutionary-cultural-familial switch clicks, and suddenly I am all about getting that shit done, and well.

This strikes at what I have observed to be one of the most fundamental dichotomies in Bhutanese-American priorities. Maybe I should do this as a list, because lists are easier for my tween reader base to digest.



This is such a basic truth of life I don't need to go over it. I consider myself to be really good at stuff, as do many Americans. I have overwhelming pride about stuff, and being good at it, better, even, than other people are. This pride motivates a solid majority of my behavior, especially in my professional capacities.

As the Bhutanese seem to have tacitly discovered, this priority makes you an asshole. It just does. Bhutanese people are not assholes. The worst ones we've met are driven by the faults of stupidity or ignorance, but I am pretty sure we have yet to meet a bona fide asshole. As a compromise, they are not generally that good at stuff, which does not bother them at all. At times, it absolutely infuriates me. But that is because I am an asshole.



This is something else that has been written about ad nauseam by better writers (and thus bigger assholes) than myself, but I am forever thinking about my nutrient intake here, or how walking alongside unregulated Indian trucks is affecting my lungs, or about trying to have a meal that is neither fried nor covered in cheese. Our friend Ugyen made us a salad last week composing of--in its entirely--a tomato and salt. In about equal parts.

Needless to say, the Bhutanese are stick-thin and vibrantly healthy (except for Wangchuck) despite, and probably because, they are not constantly in a fit of nervous anxiety about their Body Mass Index. Instead, they stuff. Outside. They sleep well. They relax. They probably do not have a Dzongkha word for "Health maintenance organization." It's just life, you know? You don't think about it all the time.



It's a cheapshot, but it's not an insult.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Cup

It is a beautiful thing to be outside of the U.S. during the World Cup. Here are my experiences:

Zeb and I go to our friend Ugyen’s house to celebrate the opening of the Cup. We are also celebrating our first night of real-life work that truly felt like college: the night before, we had written our final exams, strictly following the government-mandated syllabus, meaning I had to write 40 pages worth of English exam. All the classics were there: absurdly involved late night snacking, caffeine pills, 3 A.M. showers, and the like.
Ugyen’s inhumanly hospitable brother Tenzin greets us, takes the bottle of brandy we offer Ugyen, and pours us heaping-full glasses of hard A. Needless to say, we belligerently root against Mexico, while the Bhutanese root for them, because they are the better team. They insist we stay for the evening game at 12:30 AM. Zeb passes out on the floor of the 8-by-10 room that both Ugyen and his brother sleep in. I stay awake, alone, for the entire France-Uruguay game. Ugyen and Tenzin are sharing a bed, adorably. I sleep on Ugyen’s bed while Zeb sleeps on the floor. We wake up at 7 AM and walk 45 minutes back to our apartment along a Himalayan mountain ridge in the glaring, revelatory morning sunlight. We have forgotten to lock our apartment. The Bhutanese criminals have not stolen anything, perhaps because they are busy faithfully tending to their elderly relatives, or praying deferentially to Lord Buddha, or not existing.

On Saturday night, Zeb and I make our way into bustling downtown Thimphu. Zeb has a Skype appointment, so I watch the World Cup as it is meant to be watched: with intense passion, alongside one’s curbside compatriots, on a sidewalk on TVs being displayed in a store window. Eventually the store closes, leaving its patrons out in the literal cold, so we make our way to one of the fancy expat-catering bars in town, where I see my first black person in three months. It was a wonderful experience. I thought I was going to go a full year without seeing anyone with a skin shade darker than Bengali. Of course, this guy was Jamaican-Canadian-British and not particularly dark, but it was a surprisingly visceral relief to interact with him. I felt more human, somehow, being reminded of the heterogeneity I was brought up to value so deeply.
The bar closed at midnight, as they all do, before the all-important U.S. game. We called Ugyen, hoping he would let us rudely crash his apartment in the middle of the night to watch the game. The conversation went like this:
“Hey, buddy! How are you?”
“Jon. I am in Paro.”
“Oh, shit. Nevermind. Have a good weeke—“
“Please come to my place to watch the game. I have left the door open. Please come.”
We arrived at 12:40 and the door was literally open. Not the lock. The door was wide open. In the middle of the night.
We watched the U.S.’s glorious draw next to a sleeping Tenzin. We thought we were the biggest assholes in the world. Five minutes after we arrived, two Bhutanese guys knocked on the door.
“Yes, is Ugyen here?”
“You are watching World Cup, yes?”
“Umm…[sounds of World Cup game in background]…kinda…”
And they came in.
And they both sat on Tenzin’s bed.
And they turned up the volume—which we had on silent, the TV being two feet away from our sleeping angel of a teenager—to very loud.
And they took the blankets from sleeping Tenzin and both passed out on his small bed, forcing him onto the ground.
It’s a cultural thing.

This made two days in a row we had rudely violated Ugyen’s domicile. All Sunday, we avoided talking to him, embarrassed. We saw him at school on Monday. He was quite nonplussed with me, as I expected.
“You had a good weekend?”
“Hey, Ugyen. Look, I’m really sorry about passing out on your bed, and coming over at 1 AM and waking your brother up, and I swear I’ll make it up to you, and—“
“Where were you yesterday? World Cup game was on, yes?”
“Wha—Um, well, yeah, it was.”
“Why you did not watch at my place?”
Guilt. It’s a cultural thing.

Needless to say, tonight we went to Ugyen’s place to watch the highly anticipated
match. Ugyen was not picking up his phone. We decided to go over uninvited. We arrived, and Tenzin was sleeping soundly at 8 P.M. Being the perfect student and brother is a tiring occupation. Again, it goes without saying that there was a random Bhutanese guy there watching the game in the bedroom by himself while Tenzin tossed and turned.
Ugyen’s third roommate Bini—keep in mind, this is probably a 250-square-foot apartment—came home during the game to find us camped out alone in his living space. He asked petulantly why we were not drinking beer. He insisted we stay 2 ½ hours to watch Brazil-North Korea. He insisted we stay the night on his bed. His arrival woke Tenzin up. Tenzin’s response to seeing two white men unexpectedly sitting next to his bed watching his television loudly was this:
“[sleep groan.]”


“I will make you dinner.”

It’s a nice culture they’ve got here.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Bhutanese Grammar Lesson

As an English teacher, I have paid careful attention to the patterns of spoken and written language during my stay here. I humbly present a short lesson on the uses of some common words and phrases particular to Bhutanese culture.

Is it?


1. A nonsensical, meaningless, grammatically characterless response to anything, given in order to alert the speaker to the fact that you have heard what he has said. Synonymous with “mm-hmm,” “yep,” “[grunting noise]”.

“I am a human male currently relaying information to you via the medium of language.”
“Is it?”

2. An expression of caring meant to display the fact that you have the same level of concern for every situation in life no matter its importance or unimportance.

“Yesterday I ate ema-datse, as I have done every day for my entire life.”
“Is it?”

“I am suffering through an existential malaise so profound as to call into question the very purpose of my life. I think I may end it all tonight.”
“Oh, is it?”



1. Synonymous with “just,” but in the wrong syntactical position, and used a random number of times per sentence.

“Yesterday only I went to the market only and bought a shelf only.”

“This year only the curriculum will cover all of Buddhist thought only and every other facet of the enlightened mind only.”

2. A random two-syllable interjection with no set meaning or pattern of usage, except that it always follows nouns, adjectives, or adverbs, and never precedes them.

“To me only, the situation in China only will be exacerbated only by a rising fear only of global economic interdependence only. Only.”

“[any combination of words in English and/or Dzongkha] only.”



1. “A.” The article “a” is considered inauspicious, and is not used here. This produces occasional confusion for outsiders with the faulty assumption that “one” indicates specifically a singular object when there is the possibility that it may be plural.

This is an actual example, that someone actually said, actually:

“I am going into town to find one wife.”

This example is shockingly common. People frequently talk about how they are looking for one wife, or one house, or one job. Either there is some misunderstanding about the use of articles, or this society is much more interesting than it seems.


1. Exactly the same as its English definition, but may only be used when describing beatings.


“That one has no respect. He should be beaten nicely.”

“It was performed nicely, the beating was.”

“I said to him, I will do nicely to you, and by my use of that particular adverb, he knew I was talking about a beating.”

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Just a quick thought

How do Bhutanese folks enter people into their cell phones? I mean, when 7 of your friends are named Ngawang Yeshi, and another two are named Kinley with no last name, how do you keep track of which is which? In our classes, kids have labeled themselves as Sonam Tshering A, Sonam Tshering B, Kinley Wangchuck 1-3, etc. It's functional. It would be a little demeaning in a peer relationship, though. How do you decide which of your friends is Kinley A?

This isn't a jab, by the way, it's a legitimate thought.

Also, sorry for updating so infrequently over the last two weeks. Real life is hard. I'll be back in force...soon...

Monday, April 26, 2010

Quotes of the week

Maybe you had to be there, but this is one of the funniest moments of my recent life. Ugyen was deadly serious here. We are discussing the logistics of a long hike the next day.

Ugyen: “You should bring a pack lunch.”

Me: “No problem, we just bought a loaf of bread, we’ll make sandwiches.”

Ugyen (after a pause): “Uh, it should be food.”


Middle-aged woman: “My daughter is verrrry ugly. We sent her away.”

(the same person, a different day): “My daughter is sooo fat. Lucky her brain is very fast.”

(Don’t worry, they sent her away to government school because she is so smart. But the exact order of those two thoughts was hilarious. And she also called me fat in the course of the same conversation, so fair is fair.)


My homeroom class, as unruly and troublemaking as they are, crack me up every day. This is probably the funniest interaction from the last week.

Me: I’m going to give you all a second chance, because I love all of you.

Male Student: That’s gay, sir.

Me: No, I love you like you were all my own children. It’s not gay to love your son, is it?

Male Student: Michael Jackson, sir.

Aaaand from today, at lunch:

Male student: Sir, I have to go to hospital. I have a boil on my knee.

Me: No. Go back to class.

Student: But sir, it's bothering me.

Me: You can have the health coordinator look at it, but you can't miss class.

Student: Aw, come on, sir.

Me: No.

Student: But my excuse is better than some other ones I've heard.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Have you ever had to violently restrain a teenager from washing your dishes after fervently refusing to eat the food you offered him?

Have you ever been given a scolding lecture on how drinking alcohol is evil ("If you drink one bottle today, you will have to drink two bottles tomorrow, and then you are addicted") by someone who has been rabidly chewing betelnut in front of you for several hours?

Have you ever listened to a virtuoso pianist play an incredible jazz piece and then explain to the audience the concept of improvisation?

Have you ever gone out on the town with a friend your age and then hear them tell someone else the next day, (in these exact words,) "I went out last night intentionally to find a wife, but I failed?"

Have you ever been invited to have Sunday dinner with an extended family who strictly does not drink, but who stops their car on the way and insists you buy beer even though you really don't want to, just because they have seen you drinking once before in a totally different context?

Have you ever had a Buddhist Lama crack wise about the dirtiness of your socks?

If not, you have probably not been to Bhutan.

Monday, April 12, 2010

A thousand words, none of which are "African-American"

During a free period today I showed all the pictures I have on my computer to a Bhutanese friend. This was both aggravating and hilarious. It was annoying because he wasn't really that interested, and I fully expected the pictorial evidence of my thrilling life to blow his mind. It was hilarious because of the following:

1. He was only interested in seeing pictures of women. ONLY. Even after I introduced some collections of photos I thought were really interesting--kayaking around Hawaii, driving across the U.S.--he requested that I go through the entire collection and pick out only those pictures that featured women. Not attractive women, not single women. Just women. Any of them.

2. When an attractive woman appeared, he would ask if she was married, and if not, whether I had her contact info. This happened several times.

3. When a picture of me at a formal dinner with a date, he asked whether she was my girlfriend, and I said yes. He asked why we were not currently dating, and I said I broke up with her. He grinned with consolatory pity and said, "ahhh, I think this is a great loss for you!"

4. I showed him pictures of my fall break trip to Suneil's house. I thought he would be stunned by the pictures of us hiking in a beautiful New England forest at the height of its vibrant fall colors. Instead, he was gleefully captivated by the fact that I had an Indian friend. Even though Suneil was clearly the same person in every photo, he kept saying, "Oh, he is Indian?"

As a capper, this album included some photos of John, who is black. With an expression definitely of surprise if not outright disapproval, my friend says, loudly, in the staff room where I work:

"Oh, is he a Negro?"

And, god forgive me, I had absolutely no idea what to say. I was actually rendered speechless. I started to to explain why we don't use this word, but there are so many hours and hours worth of cultural explanation before this concept can be comprehended on any level that it isn't even worth it. It definitely made me think that even though people here connect to each other on a very basic human level, there are parts of me that, just by virtue of being an American, they will never, ever, ever understand.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Another Saturday night

Pretty typical. Made drinks using our bounty of farmer's-market produce. Met a guy in his 20s who lives in our building. Within 10 minutes of meeting him he offered to drive us to Punakha next weekend (5 hours each way) and take us camping. When he found out I played soccer he offered to let me play with his office team. Standard.

(This is pretty funny since he works as an agronomist specializing in mushrooms at the Ministry of agriculture. Apparently their office league is broken down by their intra-department specialization. I.e., his team is made up of all the mushroom people, and they will play against the wheat people, or the chili people.)

We went to the corner general store/bar to have a beer with our new friend, who told us he lived alone. Come to think of it, he told us a lot of things. He pretty much immediately told us he was lonely and wanted to be our friends, after which he made the standards Bhutanese offers to take us anywhere and do anything we wanted. Bhutanese naivete can get really annoying, but this just illustrated the beauty of people who are so innocent. I mean, what's the point of not appearing desperate? Everyone wants friends. So what if two random guys at the bar think you're a loser? We spend so much time posturing. We have so much invested in our image in situations where it doesn't matter at all. A grown man basically asked us, "Will you be my friend?" And we will. It makes me wonder what kind of response you'd get if you went around asking people this in the U.S. after knowing them for five minutes.

As it turns out, his credibility was compromised anyway when an older woman walked into the bar and started arguing loudly with him. We could tell some major drama was happening; these things transcend language. After a while he turned to us and explained, "This is my mother. She says I should come home because it is late. But it's only ten!"

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A series of events

This was one of the more interesting days of my life. Unfortunately for you, I’m sworn to secrecy about most of it, which is how you know it was so interesting. Here are some of the more bloggable occurrences.


It’s a continuing meme in our experience that the Bhutanese conception of hospitality is absurdly beyond anything we use to define the word. The Bhutanese—at least the good ones—don’t think of hospitality as being kind to your guests, or even deferring some of their needs to take care of yours. When a Bhutanese is in hospitality mode, they will cut off a limb if they think you might be entertained by it.
I went over to my friend and colleague Ugyen’s house tonight. Ugyen is the most hospitable person on the planet. His brother Tenzin, a student at my and his brother’s school, puts him to shame. When I arrived, Tenzin was a ball of miserable-sounding flesh buried under two blankets. He was really, really sick. As Ugyen took care of some hospitality in the other room, I spent a couple minutes alone in Tenzin’s bedroom. The only thing indicating another person in the room was an occasional pre-death moan from under the lifeless pile of blanket. As I halfheartedly browsed the bookshelf, I heard a rustle from the corner; the rustle became movement, and with the effort of a Soviet prisoner rousing himself from the brink of death to renounce his belief in God, Tenzin sat up and said:


An hour later, we were in the Emergency Room. Ugyen went outside to make a call. I accompanied Tenzin, who was shaking with feverish chills but refused to put on the sweater I wasn’t even wearing. We sat in silence for a while, enjoying the surprisingly pleasant ambiance of the marble waiting room. It was an effort for him even to sit up in the chair—every few minutes he would be overtaken with pain and double over. Which is why it made total sense for him to turn to me and say, with genuine concern,

“Sir, you must be very bored.”

Even in the goddamn EMERGENCY ROOM, it was inconceivable that his needs could in any way supercede mine.


After we returned to the apartment, Ugyen was compelled to cook a monstrous feast of a dinner, even though it was 10:30, I was still stuffed from earlier, and I told him I would not eat anything. I insisted on watching and trying to help him cook, since I like cooking, a fact which not a single person in Bhutan has accepted as possible, given that I am male and do not currently work as a caterer. He spent an hour painstakingly making an authentic Bhutanese meal of fried fish, vegetable curry, beef sausage-ish stuff, and chili sauce. Just as he’d forcefully loaded me up a heaping plate, he addressed me with the conspiratorial tone of someone sharing an inside cultural secret with a worthy outsider.
“Here—try this,” he said, and with a deft motion of a serving utensil, he scooped at least three tablespoons worth of butter on top of my rice.
He is the P.E. teacher, by the way.


Don’t ask how, but at one point in the evening I became acquainted with a 90-year-old man who had spent his life as a Dasho, or judge, a position that commands the utmost respect. He spoke no English, but I sat as rapt as everyone else as he shared (presumably) wise nuggets of knowledge with his much younger company. (According to the other people there, he really liked me despite our total inability to communicate, and said it was great that I was taking a respectful interest in Bhutan, but fervently urged that I send most of the money I made here back home to my parents.)
For a while we all sat around listening to him and power-chewing doma, which he kept a gargantuan stash of, and which he kept offering me. I accepted at one point, and after I started chewing, he stuck his hand into his massive gho pocket (the Bhutanese pride themselves on having the largest pockets in the world) and rooted around for a minute. With a gleeful, childlike grin, he handed me a piece of gum. “For after the doma,” someone translated. It was a pretty great moment.

But not the best. After another long period of respectful listening, Ugyen went into the kitchen and brought out two cups. In one, he poured a solid four and a half fingers of whiskey, which he placed in front of Dasho. In the second, he poured water. The Bhutanese drink whiskey diluted with water in about equal parts—they will pour the water glass into the whiskey glass and sip away for an extended period of time.
Not this Bhutanese.
As I looked on in amazement, he poured a tiny dash of water into the whiskey, and then he CHUGGED THE ENTIRE GLASS. After that came about 15 seconds of the hacking death-rattle noises you expect 90-year-olds to be making pretty much all the time, let alone right after pounded a frat-sized bro-tail. He recovered and then continued sharing wisdom. It was pretty impressive that he was even awake at 9:30 PM, let alone outdrinking the rest of the room by 200%. They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore. He told us his brother was 92 and did a full man’s load of farm work every day. He also looked no older than a 65-year-old American. There’s something in the air here. Something other than old-man spittle mixed with $2 whiskey.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

"Like I said, Bhutan has the nicest people on Earth."

Today was pretty amazing. In town visiting Strassfeld and Eric, we skipped out on the Paro Tsechu and tried to hike to Taksin monastery, otherwise known as Tiger's Nest, otherwise known as the steepest slope in the world with a building on it. Unlike the tourists, though, we weren't taking the lame path off the road. We were going to try and reach it from the other side of the mountain. That means summitting the mountain and climbing down to Taksin from above. The monks weren't going to know what hit them.

Well, we failed. Luckily, at around 3:30, already dead tired from a long ascent and a general lack of available oxygen, we ran into a 20-person hiking party of Bhutanese people who informed us that Taksin was 4 or 5 hours away--meaning our attempted trek was about a 10 hour one, not the "easy" hike we'd been promised. Still, it was unbelievable--Zeb should be posting the pictures soon. Highlights include sightings of mountain goats and visiting a remote mountainside monastery in which we inched across rickety part-broken boards over a 100-foot drop to reach a former residence of Guru Rinpoche, the spiritual father of Bhutan, where we drank from a vat of water blessed by his proximity. Imagine hiking up a sheer face for three hours to discover a tiny outcropping of houses, being led to a tiny cave, and having someone tell you, "Oh yeah! Jesus used to live here. Hey, there's some holy water in his former house. You want some? Go ahead, fill up your bottle!" That's exactly what it was equivalent to. All in all, one of the more memorable hikes of my life.

Oh, yeah. The monastery had solar panels on its roof.

Maybe more memorable than the hike itself were the continual gifts of human faith we keep receiving, unbidden, almost every day we reside in this country. Strass tends to romanticize things, but one refrain of his--"Bhutanese people are the nicest people one Earth"--may be literally true. Two things that happened to us today:

First, we didn't know the exact route to the base of the mountain. Our attempted route involved cutting through people's property. At one small house, we greeted a woman washing clothes, who asked us where we were going. "Taksin," we told here. She spoke little English, but it was clear she wanted to point out that we had no idea where we were going. After some awkward gesturing, she screamed something into the house, and a child of around 12 emerged. With great effort, she turned to us and mustered in her best English: "Take this my son with you." With great humility, we followed this boy as he led us over gates and across rice paddies for twenty minutes to the base of the trail. We offered him some money, which he refused, even though he had every reason to assume we were tourists, and thus both rich and clueless.

Almost immediately after he left us, we came upon an old woman walking through the forest. She vocalized fervently in Dzongkha for a while and pointed towards the woods; we thought we had somehow already gotten lost. We tried some simple phrases on her, but there was to be absolutely no communication this time. After some fraught moments of silence, she motioned for us to follow her but stay behind.

Some thirty feet in front of us stood a herd of cows. At its front was a humongous bull, locked in battle with a smaller cow as we first saw it. This alpha male bull quickly fought off its challenger and stamped its feet, kicking and snorting, in a murderous temper.

We stared in amazement as this bent woman picked up a stick off the ground and headed straight for the enraged beast. Yelling, the woman waved the stick at the bull, landing a couple of solid blows. The bull, a fearsome force of nature, took off stampeding into the trees, with most of the herd following behind it.

The woman calmly walked up to us with a smile that said, "you understand?" We were speechless. Then she insisted on giving us a parting gift of hardened yak cheese as she sent us on our way. Why wouldn't an old woman confront a violent 1000-pound animal to help some foreign strangers? It's the nice thing to do.

It wasn't lost on me that we had these experiences as a consequence of skipping the Paro Tsechu, an important cultural celebration that masses tourists to come and get an 'authentic' view of Bhutanese life via traditional dances that are performed once a year. We were talking about not going to the tsechu, and one of said something to the effect of, "tourists don't know how bad they have it here. The culture is nice and all, but the whole reason this place is special is how the people treat each other. You can't really experience it without living here."

Which we are.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Losing the battle, winning the war

10/33 of my students in one 11th grade section completed the homework today. I gave them a stern lecture about how the class is not graded on a curve, all work is compulsory, and I had no qualms about failing all of them if they didn't take class seriously. Here is our exchange from the end of class.

ME: So do you all understand tonight's assignment?


ME: Do you think you can do it?

CLASS: Yes, sir!

ME: Are you going to do it?

CLASS: No, sir!

ME (exasperated): Are you going to repeat the 11th grade until you're 50 years old?

CLASS: Yes, sir!

ONE BOY: Fifty-one, sir!

Since the midterm and final are supposed to be 80% of their grade, and since I'm told just passing rather than achieving high marks is emphasized by many families, I can understand that my kids are frustrated by the high volume of work I'm giving them. I wouldn't be frustrated if they weren't so funny--a trait that shows me that in general they are very bright. Many of them remind me a good deal of myself in high school--precocious without being offensive, subversive without being directly rebellious. The difference, I think, is that I always understood the consequences of not putting in my best effort in school.

I am teaching the way I was taught: homework every night, constant quizzing to reinforce concepts, major emphasis on in-class discussion and a democratic classroom. I think some of this methodology is just going to prove too foreign. I remain astonished at how my kids were raucous and unable to pay attention during a fun activity like in-class debate, but work diligently and quietly when I give what I find to be a boring grammar lesson. Well, as I told them, I'm happy to teach grammar and syntax all year. They could certainly use the help. As could we all.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

In which cultural objects have different associations when taken out of their original context

I had each of my classes introduce themselves and tell me what their favorite thing to read was. The only repeated answer (except for "I don't read," which was really common) was "Nicholas Sparks." Two girls and two boys. One boy brought a copy of "The Notebook," book version, to class. It was the only non-textbook I've ever seen in the hands of a teenager here.

An older kid came to basketball tryouts yesterday wearing a pink Jonas Brothers t-shirt. I saw a grown man wearing the same shirt on the street a couple hours later. During downtime at tryouts, a group of teenage boys, who fancy themselves real badasses and have a club team called "The Delinquents," listened to Justin Bieber on a cell phone.

Many of the most rebellious teenagers I've seen display their affiliation with their crew by holding hands with them, or, more commonly, draping their arms affectionately over their bros' shoulders as they amble down the mean streets.

Homosexuality is against the law here.
Wandering around town yesterday, we randomly ran into two of the 21 other teachers from our school. Last Saturday, we saw five of them while shopping, then another two of our friends in the supermarket, and then another three friends at a cafe, where I met the Lama who presides over the youth center where we'd seen a movie our first night in Bhutan. It's safe to say there is a small-town vibe here. Bhutan has a gossipy culture befitting a society built around small communities; if you meet someone who has a single friend in common with someone you know, they probably know every intimate detail of your personal life already, especially your marital status. As a teacher who's been working here for a year told me, "be careful what you do, because if it's interesting, you'll be reading about it tomorrow on the front page of the Kuensel [a local paper]."

Thimphu is supposed to be an 80,000 person city. Where are most of these people? Why do we keep seeing the same 20 of them?

Friday, March 12, 2010


----A guy named Simtoshi whose dad lives upstairs claims to hold the Guinness World Record for smallest carved statue----

----I spent a significant portion of today, the last day of preparation before school starts, transferring textbooks from a chicken shack into a pickup truck-----

----My 12th graders are going to be tested by the state on "Tess of the D'ubervilles," a 450-page novel about social mores in 19th-century England; when I asked an experienced colleague how many pages per night I should assign for that level of material, she responded, after serious consideration, "Two, and most of them won't read that much"----

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

In which I start teaching in six days

Again my internet situation is less than optimal, and I'm tired to boot, so only quick updates--

Our apartment is livable. We have a heater, a stove, blankets, and a number of other things that people have in apartments. As much of a hassle and an expense as it's been to shop for essentials every day--and to realize every day that there are essentials we don't have--it's a rewarding feeling to take such an empty place and slowly turn it into a home. There's nothing like finding and purchasing a cutting board to make you feel like you've achieved a major victory. A number of times since we've moved in, I've gotten that rush you get when you're backpacking and you do something basic like cook a meal or brush your teeth; it's a combination of the visceral contentment of satisfying a fundamental physical need and the satisfaction of imposing your will on the forces of society and the natural world. Once we get paid, we may even buy curtains and rugs. We figure we'll be ready for a housewarming party sometime around the beginning of April, and will be excited for the kinetic energy of living beings to literally warm the place.

As for official business,

We've been meeting for three days as a faculty. Only today, in which we tackled the dubious job of writing school rules and guidelines, felt like a real faculty meeting in the way I was expecting them to feel. I am the head of Dramatics Club, which I anticipated since being hired, but which remains daunting. I doubt it will be hugely popular, as one of the other options is ping-pong. (You are a crafty fox, Mark.) It shouldn't be as anxiety-causing as the task of teaching my ~120 English students, but the fact that it will be such a smaller group, and such a less formal setting, adds a whole different set of expectations. While I have every intention of making a real impact on my students, I'm not harboring any lofty fantasies of changing every kid's life with the self-actualizing power of literature, Dead Poet's Society-style; in Dramatics club, though, I will be teaching only a small group engaged in something they will probably have little to no experience with and in which I am highly knowledgeable. Right now, it feels like anything but opening their minds to the transformative power of unchained self-expression will be a total failure. Which is rough, because that last sentence is ridiculous, and I know it. But that's just how I feel.

Though I'm more confident every day, I'm starting to see how teaching could get brutal on my psyche, even though I consider myself as mentally tough as anyone. I've always gotten by by setting an absurdly high bar for myself and having things turn out OK when I only achieve half the things I thought I should have. I'm realizing that this job takes that power largely out of my hands--that even if I go all Robin Williams-in-New-England on everyone, many of my students will not be inspired, many will not care, and some will fail. That's just how life is. I shouldn't beat myself up over it, but I'm going to. That's just how I am.

Many more interesting things happened recently, but I'm not going to write about them. Here's the best (appropriate) quote from yesterday, from a very fit, health-conscious, athletic, young Bhutanese guy, a guy who told us he broke up with his last girlfriend because she was a smoker:

"No, you should drink this tea. It's very good for your health. There is nothing in it but butter, salt, and water."

And he will live 30 years longer than me. And so it goes.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

In which it gets very, very real

At 8:30 this morning—a Saturday morning, mind you—a middle-aged woman rang my doorbell. As my apartment is well removed from the middle of nowhere, I hadn’t been anticipating a social call. Also, it was 8:30 a.m. on Saturday morning.

“Uh, hello,” she whispered. (She’s shy, and her English is better than she puts on.) She placed a giant thermos in front of the door. “I made tea for you. Um, I have to go shopping into the city.”

On Thursday, on our insistence, Zeb and I moved out of the cushy hotel our employer had been paying for and into an edifice I have dubbed The Realness. It is an hour’s walk from downtown Thimphu, fifteen feet from a calm but highly audible river, several kilometers away from the pervasive influence of Whitey, and, at the moment, cognitive light years away from being a respectable domicile. At present, we lack: a heater; curtains; chairs; floor coverings; a stove; sheets; and anything designed to conceal the exposed cement that forms almost every surface.

We have: potatoes. (That one’s for you, Christian. Though it is true.)

It is going to be a simple existence. That said, we are extremely fortunate to have gotten this apartment. The housing market is crazy here, as befits the most rapidly expanding urban area in the country—our principal, for one, is still looking for a place. To boot, the place is gigantic. We have a huge common room and a master bedroom that we don’t know what to do with. Given that we live in a dusty cement box in the basement of a building, there’s really no excuse for us not to be training in Muay Thai streetfighting, or at least becoming enlightened ascetic monks.

Our best experience with this place has been the landlords, of whom the aforementioned lady is one. Our first night here, they came to set up our water heater and noticed that we were about to cook dinner by an open fire by the riverbank. Somewhat appalled, they invited us to come eat with them. We spent a very enjoyable evening making awkward conversation with the husband, who speaks excellent English and studied in Australia for two years. They are just sincerely selfless people. They set out snacks for us that they didn’t touch; they cooked a huge meal and insisted we eat before they even served themselves; and most incredibly, again without our asking, the wife (Dawa) served us tasty homemade liquor from her family’s home town, and then told us that they don’t drink at all. They keep liquor on hand (and in a beautiful ornate serving vessel) just in case they happen to have visitors over. Keep in mind they live an hour away from town.

The next night, still having on hand the potatoes and vegetables we’d cut up and offered to the landlords (they refused, of course), we decided to cook out by the river. We (and by this I mean Zeb, who is an Eagle Scout) built a fire in a pit we found and fried up a nice wokfull of chilies, potatoes, onions, and a literally inedible dried cheese product called Chugo. (As in, it tastes good, but you can’t eat it. It just sits there, mocking you. We soaked it in water overnight and deep-fried it. No dice.) Halfway through the cooking process, we see several residents of the apartment building staring at us from their balconies, with that look that even from 50 feet away says, “WTF LOL WHITEYS.” Right on cue, Dawa came down to the river bank, I guess to make sure we were aware that we had built a fire and were not criminally insane. She hovered around us for a good while, assessing the situation, and, likely, our mental well-being. When she determined that we were both serious about this camp-cooking and rather successful at it, she trundled off to her apartment to bring us rice, without which our meal would have been incomplete. She invited us to cook in her kitchen until we got a gas stove installed, and generally extended the kind of pitiful hospitality you’d give to an invalid retiree who’d just had his pension cut. We tried to explain that we found this kind of outdoors experience fun, and that we wanted to do it at least once, but this concept didn’t translate. Thus, there she was at 8:30 with a thermos of hot tea.

Discussing this with our other American friends yesterday, Zeb and I found ourselves a little divided. Zeb, rightfully, seemed ashamed to have been subjected to this pity—and it was clear that pity was the defining element in our relationship to our new friends upstairs. The more I thought about it, though, the less I minded. Pity, after all, is the opposite of the attitude locals have towards tourists, and any distance I can put between us and that demographic is worth some loss of dignity. After all, this was our truest interaction with locals yet. In many ways, this was the personal, spontaneous hospitality I’d been promised in long trips to Ecuador, Costa Rica, and France, but had never experienced. So our connection to these people started off based on our perceived poverty, or incompetence, or insanity, or whatever: it was still a connection. If it took some pity to get there, so be it. You’ve gotta start somewhere.

[There’s a lot more to tell right now—the school is finally starting up, and I lucked into 11th and 12th grade English, which I’d most wanted to teach. We don’t have internet in the apartment, and probably won’t until our first paycheck comes in, so updates will be few and far between.]

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


It takes forever to upload pictures here, so you may experience some inconsistencies between pic posting date and real life. Here are some from yesterday.

It's supposed to be somewhat rude to take pictures of people here, so I was surprised when these little girls asked me to take a picture with them. Cute.

This is an archery target we found on a dirt path. The Bhutanese love archery.

This is Zeb giving you a sense of scale. The Bhutanese are really good at archery.

This is Trashi Chhoe Dzong, the royal building that houses the government and royal monastic body.

And finally--a special prize to the first person who guesses what the function of this body of water is. Game on! Hint: it's not something Bhutan-specific.

Buddha Fail

As detailed succinctly in Zeb's blog (, the past day and a half have been largely taken up by boring bureaucratic blundering. We did take another nice hike, and again failed spectacularly to reach our unmapped destination--this time the telecom tower on top of a hill from which great views of Thimphu can be had. It was still nice, though. It also provided us with the experience that made my day.

Halfway up the mountain, deep into the 'burbs past where tourists dare to tread, we found ourselves walking behind a group of three monks. As always, we did our best to be deferential, especially in the hushed solitude of this ornate mountainside. Soon, though, we found ourselves gaining on them, walking, as they were, with the unhurried pace of those who dedicate their lives to seeking out the most fundamental truths of cosmic harmony. As we approached, we heard them laughing and yelping some high-pitched incantation: a ritualistic chant? An ecstatic cry brought about by some monastic revelation? As we came within a few feet, we realized that they were singing along. To a song. Playing on their cell phone.


the song


"Tik Tok."



I guess there's just no accounting for taste.


Still new in this mystical wonderland, we've been experiencing some firsts:
--first nose ring on a Bhutanese girl
--first Calvin Klein cowboy hat rocked by a Bhutanese gentleman in a gho
--first outdoor concert, by a power trio, in the town square, as part of an ongoing promotion for Toyota
--second Ed Hardy shirt

Sunday, February 28, 2010

For your Purim enjoyment

Happy Purim, everyone. Luckily, I happened upon some Jew-related sights on the course of a hike today. L'chaim!

For the last 36 hours I've been struggling deeply with the affliction of Tourist Shame.

As my good friends, thesis readers, and certainly Zeb have come to learn, I find authenticity, or at least the appearance of authenticity, hugely important. My proudest achievement in Asia to date has been eating the cheapest and localest food around without experiencing the colossal gastrointestinal revolt I was warned about. Still, despite my steely constitution and abundant charm, it's difficult keeping up a facade of credibility here.

There is really no such thing as white business visitors (though someone at the airport did ask us if we were government emissaries, thanks to our snappy suits and meticulously kempt facial hair). Because of the tourist quota system--it's impossible to come to Bhutan without booking a pricey tour--there's no such thing as a humble tourist, either. We've given our best efforts to look like we don't have money coming out our white pores, but to no avail. When we attended a screening of a film at a local community center, following a group of embedded honkies, the sober young man in charge greeted us with a huge grin: "Ah, I saw you walking, and I thought, oh, you're tourists." The rest was implied, and our relief was no doubt much greater than his.

My latent Tourist Shame (closely related to my latent all-purpose White Shame, Guy Who Knows Spanish Fluently but Won't Speak It In Taquerias Shame, and of course Princeton Shame) has been annoyingly reinforced by how polite everyone is here. I've had a number of Thank You Sandwich interactions with people here, especially service industry workers. ("Thank you!" "Thank you." "Thank you!") It reached an absurd apex today as we walked down a busy street and a little girl stepped off the side of the road so we could pass. I thanked her, and she not only returned the sentiment but repeated it as we walked past, a diminishing echo of painfully earnest thank you's marking us to everyone around as people whose mere missionary presence was assumed to be heaping money into their economy, which relies heavily on tourism. She had nothing to thank me for, and it really bothered me. I'm not comfortable in that role. I need to earn people's respect. It's what keeps me honest.

I was granted some kind of respite from these feelings when we went out last night for our first tour of the town's various Bars and Other Things Cum Bars. We walked around for a while and finally decided on a place lively with locals playing snooker. I will say this: it is mildly uncomfortable to walk into a small room with nobody clearly assuming the role of proprietor and featuring a baby's crib as the main piece of furnishing. We quickly made friends with a taxi driver named Mangal who we were largely successful in convincing that we weren't tourists, and who gave us useful pieces of advice such as:

1. "When you walk around at night, trust no one."
2. "Bhutan is not a religious country."
3. "Trust no one. No one!"

We ventured on to another bar where we made pleasant conversation with the owner's sister, who was taking care of the place for a short time. She seemed to treat us with only a minimal amount of respectful distance, though as soon as we got there she did covertly tell her daughter to turn off the Hindi movie on the TV and put in a DVD of Kung Fu Panda. We bought two bottles of what we thought were beer but turned out to be 14% "cool red wine," which were actually very good but totally unnecessary given that it was our first night drinking at 7500 feet and we had already had a number of 8% Hit brand beers. Needless to say, our night was over soon after a valiant attempt to finish what amounted to a full bottle of wine between the two of us.

The Bhutanese like drinking. So do we. I had the rare feeling that our consumption of alcohol last night actually served one of its higher purposes: reconciling radically different people to the same context, lowering their inhibitions, and providing some artificial common ground. Here's to you, Mangal. Thank you for talking to us instead of your wife, who was sitting angrily in a corner texting the entire time. Thank you for ordering another whiskey even though you were already soused, and then telling her you couldn't leave and pointing to the drink in front of you as an explanation. No matter what country you're from, I think we can all agree on that.

Best things from the last 24 hours Clif Notes version:
--our new friend Mangal referencing Westerners as "whitey"
--a teenager on a busted children's bike wearing an Ed Hardy by Christian Andigier shirt
--ordering the spiciest thing on a restaurant's menu, being told "don't start crying" by the waitress, and having to add more chili to it just because that's the kind of huge-balled testosterone factories we are

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Happy Beginnings

Unsurprisingly, I've started the inevitable blog several days into this crazy adventure. Well, really we're about 9 months in, but the first 8 3/4 were spent sending various emails and waiting several weeks for cryptic responses, and you don't want to hear about that, though if you're relatively close to me you surely did. The important part is that we're finally here--my compatriot Zeb, our slightly-removed friend Strass, and a business casual wardrobe, all ready to inspire the children of Bhutan. For a recap of our travels in India and our arrival here, see Zeb's companion blog at

Today was fairly lazy, which I'm writing off to letting my body continue adjusting to the altitude. We walked around town aimlessly and made a number of observations about the city, my favorite being--keep in mind that I'm officially an English teacher now--that every store that serves two functions uses the word "cum" instead of "and," i.e. "Restaurant cum bar," and once, epically, just "Cum bar." (Zeb pointed that one out.)

More to follow...