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. 

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