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.