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.