Friday, 22 November 2013

Wrestling with Cultural Diffusion in Bhutan

For your reading article that I wrote for Druk Air's Tashi Delek Magazine.

At the end of a long day in the classroom during my first month of teaching in Bhutan, I was walking home past the small group of local tshonkhangs (shops-cum-bars) that are clustered around my home. As I stopped to admire the sun dropping behind the mountains and to marvel at how clever I was for having landed myself in such an unspoilt, Himalayan paradise, I was surprised to hear what sounded like students’ voices coming from one of the shops. 

“Whoa! John Cena!

“Smack Down! Yeah!”

Sticking my head around the door, I found four boys from the boarding hostel sitting on a makeshift wooden bench, eyes glued to the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) blaring from the TV in the corner of the room.

“Sir likes wrestling?!”

On the screen, a masked behemoth, oiled nipples gleaming under his yellow mankini, launched his three hundred pound frame onto the head of his huddled counterpart.

“WHAAAA!”  The live audience and boys in the shop screamed, thumping their hands on their thighs.

“John Cena is the best, sir!”


“Sir not like wrestling?”

So much for disguising my disapproval.

“Shouldn’t you all be in the hostel?”

“Ah, err, ah…Don’t tell warden, sir! Please, sir!”

“Isn’t it study time?”

“Sir, please! John Cena – so jigs sir!”

“Hmmm, last warning. If I see you in here again, no second chances!”

“Thank you, sir!” they chorused, bowing and scraping their way out of the shop and back towards the hostel.

“Sir, fighting is real, sir?” they asked as they walked away.

I shook my head in response (and dismay) and headed back to my house. Hearing a noise, I turned back just in time to see once of the cheekiest boys, Tenzin Dorji ‘B’, trying to sneak back into the shop.


Students during morning meditation
A week later, I was still turning the incident over in my mind. Throughout most of that day, I’d been leaping around my Class VII classroom miming, scribbling, handing out learning aids, pronouncing long words like psychological and impressionable very s-l-o-w-l-y and c-l-e-a-r-l-y, in a desperate attempt to communicate at least some of the ideas in Helena Norberg-Hodge’s article People from Mars to my mostly befuddled students.

In the article, the author, an established anthropologist, describes the effects of the first waves of tourism and TV on the lives of the Tibetan Buddhist communities in Ladakh where she had lived for a number of years. The text makes up part of the required readings in the Class VII English syllabus and in preparing for my classes I’d found myself inspired and enlightened by Norberg-Hodge’s slightly cantankerous but completely uncompromising descriptions of the effects of hundreds of cashed up trekkers tramping in all their mountaineering glad-rags through her favourite Himalayan village.

In the article she recounts how her Ladakhi friends became enchanted by the lifestyle and culture of these strange and wonderful creatures who never seemed to work yet appeared to be laden with large amounts of cash. She details the way her neighbours’ perceptions of their own lives shifted so that instead of seeing their village life as being rich in community, spirituality and culture and comfortable in terms of material needs, they soon began describing themselves as poor to the visiting tourists, hoping for extra gifts or generous service tips.

The week before the WWE incident, the students at our school, along with other students all across Bhutan, celebrated Teacher’s Day by showering their teachers with presents, performing hilarious cultural shows and serving up a delicious lunch of rice, chilli and cheese. At my school, students ambushed me at the school gate, folding themselves in half as they bowed deeply and pushed cards and presents into my hands. Many boarding students had stayed up late, hand-making cards inscribed with florid, heartfelt poems, extolling the virtues of teachers as ‘our second parents’, as ‘lights in the darkness’ and (my favourite) as ‘the candle that burns them-self’. If only they knew… 

Class II students milking the cute...

 I began to worry that all my students’ sincere and heartfelt devotion was being eroded by the rampant culture of ‘me’ being presented to them via more than seventy local and international channels. Were my dear, sweet, oh-so-earnest students about to abandon all their beautiful character traits and love of Bhutanese culture in pursuit of the blinged up-slap’em-down power-mongering they were seeing on WWE? Were they, like the Ladakhi teenagers in Norberg-Hodge’s essay, about to start seeing their village life as impoverished and inadequate? Were they going to start wearing gimp-masks and mankinis to school and trying to triple-pile-drive me every time I failed them on an English essay?

My anxieties spun on quietly through my mind throughout the week. I’d read articles about the influence of television in Bhutan since its inception in 1999, about the sudden increase in drug-addiction and drug-related crime, inter-family violence, young students imitating wrestling moves at school and teenagers dissatisfied with their lives in Bhutan. Should I be worried? Should I look to take action? What would John Cena do? Helena Norberg-Hodge?

Class VI girls preparing for their boedar dance
A week after the WWE incident, preparations for our annual cultural concert came to a head. I found myself roped in as an official judge as 39 separate dance and cultural items were performed in a row for an exhausted staff and student body. The dances ranged from an outrageously cute interpretation of Gangnam Style by Class II, to the coy flirtatiousness of Class VII’s rigsar dancing, to the remarkable grace of the senior girls’ boedar candle dance. But the absolute show-stopper, the crowd, judge and teacher favourite was without a doubt the traditional Boegarp be Sonam Drugkyel dance performed by a group of sixteen Class VI boys, including most of the boys I’d busted watching WWE in the tshonkhang. 

Tenzin Dorji B getting psyched up for the Class VI Boegar be Sonam Drugkyel performance
Class VI boys after their Boegarp be Sonam Drugkyel performance
As part of the dance, the boys donned simple black ghos, ceremonial head-wreaths made from local willow and all manner of traditional swords, shields and drums. No soundtrack was provided, the music coming solely from the boys’ own joyous singing, their wild energy directed into the stamping of their feet as they rotated rhythmically in a circle on the stage. Verses were marked out by drum beats and war cries before the dance ended with a mock battle between the two opposing armies much to the raucous delight of the local audience.

The students were beaming, their exuberance unmistakable. They posed proudly for photos and even Tenzin Dorji ‘B’, devoted disciple of John Cena, ran up to the Vice Principal exclaiming happily: “I…I! Star dancer, madam!” Lopen Thinley, the class teacher who had chosen and taught the students the dance laughed with me as Tenzin Dorji gleefully posed for another ‘snap’.

“Tenzin Dorji B, I think he enjoyed the dancing!”

And for the rest of the month (at least) all my fears of rampant cultural diffusion and were allayed. My Class VII students promised to teach me their rigsar dance and then took great delight in my musical ineptitude. In return I tried to teach them some swing dancing and by the time the concert rocked around they performed some passable Lindy Hop for their ‘special item’. Phub Lham, one of my Class VII students, was even inspired to try out a new English phrase, informing me enthusiastically after our performance that learning swing dancing was ‘awesome’.

Class VII girls in rigsar item costume
And although like most teenagers in the world my students will still face significant challenges in negotiating their multiple cultural worlds, I feel more confident that at least they will have plausible alternatives to an angry, steroid-ridden world where over-sized men wear gimp-masks, yellow mankinis and spend all day stomping on each other’s heads. 

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The Generosity of Others

Last month I posted a wish list for Yangchen Gatshel LSS to help in our efforts to raise funds for the school. The response from family and friends in Australia and across the world has been extraordinary and extremely generous to say the least. Many people have written to share not only their financial support but also to offer to send materials, hold other fundraising events and bring educational materials between Bhutan and home when visiting.

Student audience during the annual picnic
With the Australian Government currently slashing 4.5 billion dollars from its foreign aid budget over the next 4 years and columnists and intellectuals across the country questioning the sanity of many Australian people's belief that our country can't spare 0.37 percent of its gross domestic product - the weekly equivalent of 44 cents per $100 earned in each Australian household - the generosity of a small group of people who have been willing to donate money to our school is heartwarming and inspiring. You can see how much has been raised or add your own contributions here. I wanted to use this post to share some of the photos from the picnic that was partly funded with money donated by friends and family back home as well as detailing where the money that has been raised is most likely to go in the future.

Money for the Annual Picnic

At a staff meeting last week it was discovered that there was insufficient money left in the school budget to be able to provide anything other than an ordinary lunchtime meal at the school's annual picnic - a big celebration over here looked forward to by all students and staff.  An ordinary lunchtime meal essentially means soupy potatoes and rice and maybe a few chillies. As evidenced by the food store photo below...

Guess what's on the menu??
 At one point the teachers were considering taking a collection from amongst themselves but thanks to the money contributed as part of the fundraising drive, I was able to say that we would chip in the $140 extra to buy all the ingredients so the kids could have some beef or egg curry so they would have some extra protein for the week.

Photo Essay of the Annual Picnic

Tea and 'bun roti' at the annual picnic

Class VI and VII boys with their  .... Na ja!

Kindy kids hooking into to their beef and chilli curry


Even the principal got in on the act...

Miss Lucy with a couple of her Bhutanese husbands...

What's a picnic without a whole heap of traditional circle dancing??

Sparkling November weather...


After receiving the bulk of the money over the last month or so (more than $4500 so far), I decided to come up with a quick criteria for how I thought donors would want the money to be spent. I was then able to share this criteria with staff and students before asking them for suggestions on how they thought the money could be used. Here's the criteria for your viewing pleasure...

Fundraising projects should:

1.     contribute to improving educational outcomes and/or living standards of all students.
2.     be designed to benefit the entire student body or a particular group of students with special needs  (e.g. boarders, students with a disability etc).
3.     be spent on projects for which there is no available money in regular school budget.
4.     once handed over, be managed and maintained by a local member of staff.
5.     be designed to be as sustainable as possible.

All the teachers and especially the principal and vice-principal were extremely grateful for the amount of money that was raised and were full of ideas for how the money could be spent to help the students at the school. The students (my Class VIIs) also had many interesting ideas about how the money should be spent (including televisions in the hostel rooms - not gunna happen kids!). 

Mostly the consultation process showed that many of the areas that I felt needed financial support were also identified by students and teachers and many that I had overlooked were also added to the list. I was even happier that some of the big budget areas that I thought were important (retaining walls, fencing etc) are going to be looked after by the state government in 2014.

Anyway, for more highly stimulating reading pleasure, here is the proposed budget.

Estimated Cost per Unit (nu)
Estimated Total Cost (nu)
Estimated Total (AUD)
Rounded Estimated Total (AUD)
Heaters for hostel
Football Boots for girls
Dictionaries Eng/Dzo
New Books (purchased)
Food Budget for Picnic
Water boilers for hostel
Cupboards for classes
Art Classes
Extra Needs in 2014
New Books (incoming)

Running Total

Heaters and Water Boilers
There are a few items on the list that I hadn’t identified in the initial 'wish list', including heaters and water boilers for the hostel students. When I spoke to the teachers and the students, everyone identified this as a need: it gets pretty cold in Chamgang in winter – maybe 4 or 5 degrees colder than the coldest Canberra winter – and the hostels are currently not heated (or insulated) at all. The fundraising money would provide one oil heater for each room of the girls’ and boys’ hostels to take the edge off the cold. (Some of the kids were angling for a bukhari – a wood fire stove – in each room, but the teachers vetoed this for safety reasons!).

The boarders currently have restricted access to a geezer – which is not, as you would expect, a solidly proportioned debt collector from East London with missing teeth and lots of gold rings, but in fact a hot water system. They can use this to gather about half a bucket of hot water for a shower about once a week, but apart from that have no access to hot water. The water boilers are those 3 litre kettles that keep the water warm after boiling, and would be used mostly for when the students are sick and need hot water to drink.

Extra Needs in 2014

You will also notice a category for ‘extra needs for 2014’. This is designed to cover any budget shortfalls which prevent the school from being able to buy important resources and facilities currently projected to be paid for out of the 2013-2014 school budget. This includes things like school furniture, building maintenance, computer repairs and photocopier maintenance. Miscellaneous items like money for the picnic would also be included in this amount.
Anyway, that's the low down from up high (currently 2,627m according to my phone) on the whole fundraising issue. Again a massive thank you to everyone who's wished us well with this endeavour and to those that have been able to contribute.  I hope you've enjoyed the photos and if you know anyone else who might like to contribute please send them a link to this page.