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?”


  1. And you replied ...??? ("Love to buy you a beer and share my impressions at length")

  2. so i just googled "king of bhutan" out of curiosity, and let me say, he's actually quite a cutie. young. looks pretty suave.

    (bet you didn't know i read this)

  3. Wenli: I keep asking people if it's sacrilegious to point out that he looks a lot like Jet Li. Which he does. Also hi. And how are you.

  4. Jon, I just quit my job so that I could finally read your blog. It was well worth it; you made me laugh out loud.

  5. I'd forgotten how much fun it is to read things you've written.

  6. Actually, I believe the third conversation track is "Do you take chili?"