Search This Blog

Monday, November 19, 2012

Becoming Bhutanese

The Sun peeked from behind a cloud and began slanting through the windows, zeroing in on the boy who was still sleeping.

“Breakfast is ready.” It was Kinley’s father. “Get dressed, you are getting late for school”.
Kinley was in Class Nine at the local high school. He was an intelligent boy.

He got along very well with the school “sophisticates” with their funny hairstyles, which he knew was the popular Korean cut. He studied hard and came first in his class.

Soon, influenced by his stylish friends, Kinley too began copying the Korean look so he could fit in better with his friends. It started with the hairstyle but over time he became obsessed with everything Korean. Before he knew he was swept up by the new “Korean wave” that was sweeping all the young people in the country.

Photo courtesy Druk Youth Fashion
“Kinley, you are changing day by day”, his father told him.

” I am afraid that you will be like the funny looking boys I see loitering in town these days”

“Don’t worry Apa.”

“I’m warning you if you happen to become one of those, you will make me very sad’’.

“Don’t worry Apa…“

Kinley reassured his father but didn’t realise how much he was influenced. He unintentionally ignored everything Bhutanese. Korea became his dreamland. He watched Korean movies, learnt the Korean language and even sang Korean songs, though he didn’t know what he was singing about. He would dream of visiting Korea every moment that he chanced, day or night. 

One day there was announcement during the morning assembly at school that they were selecting five students to visit Korea as a part of a cultural exchange at the end of the year. Kinley’s heart leapt to his throat, his stomach felt funny and goose bumps appeared instantly all over his body. He couldn’t suppress the excitement he was feeling.
Photo courtesy Google Image

“Did I hear correctly or am I dreaming?” Kinley wondered.

The selection was to take place at the end of the year; he soon learned that since it was a cultural exchange the students selected would have to be proficient in various aspects of traditional Bhutanese culture. The skills of the successful candidates would include singing traditional songs such as boedra and  zhungdra, performing Bhutanese folk dances and the religious mask dances. But in school, only the ‘century’ (a nickname for students who were outdated or old-fashioned) students did those things. Kinley certainly didn’t want to be labeled a ‘century’ but he badly wanted to visit Korea.

Kinley consulted his friends but they all thought he would not get to visit Korea because he didn’t even know how to dance or sing any of the traditional songs, and his knowledge about Bhutanese culture was close to nil.

Later, lying on his bed he wished he too was more like a ‘century’ and less like those stylish friends he had who understood so little about their own cultural identity. He wanted to go to Korea so badly he could taste the kimchi in his mouth.

At the first light of dawn, he finally decided he would learn everything he could about Bhutanese culture.

The next morning he registered himself for the test. He would have three months before the selections. He knew that the competition would be tough as many other students dreamed of going to Korea. But Kinley thought he was special. He felt it was his calling and his one chance to fulfill his dream.

Photo taken by self
At first he thought it would be easy to learn the things he needed to but found out that it was a challenge when he actually began to practice. He needed someone to guide and teach him but his Dzongkha teacher didn’t like him and the ‘century’ classmates were even worse. He told himself that it was Korea that he was working for and that he would do what ever it took, including his Dzongkha teacher’s unforgiving taunts.

In fact when he first approached him, his Dzongkha teacher told him to forget it. But Kinley didn’t give up.  How could he? It was Korea, after all. And his father had always taught him never give up on his dreams. So, Kinley returned to the Dzongkha teacher persistently.
After the fifth time showing up at his teacher’s door, the Dzongkha teacher told him that he would teach him what he needed to know but only if he shaved his head!
Kinley grinned and agreed to do just that.

Photo courtesy Google Image
The training began but it was very tough. Kinley had vastly underestimated the scope of the work cut out for him. He worked hard and did his best but it was never good enough for his teacher. For every mistake the teacher made him do ‘frog jumps’. One day when he was at his lowest point and thinking of giving up his father quietly told him: “What you need is interest. Things become a lot easier when one is interested in doing what he is doing.”
Kinley understood what his father meant.

In the days that followed he nearly lost his temper many times, and many times he came to the verge of giving up hope, but he always tried to find some point of interest in what he was doing. Eventually he began to appreciate the deep complexities and the richness of the timeless traditions he was seeking to learn. Soon he began to see everything in a new light. He began to actually enjoy his training!

Learning the folksongs was difficult, but he kept it up by humming the tunes and singing even when he was not practicing. As expected, his old stylish friends now started labeling him a ‘century’ so he made new friends, the ‘centuries’.

Photo courtesy Google Image
He found they were much more genuine once he got to know them. He learned he had more in common with them and their outlook on the world than his stylish friends who were living in a perpetual, illusory dream.

Photo courtesy Google Image
When the day of the selections finally arrived, Kinley did his best. He sang what he was asked to sing and danced the famous Dramitshe Ngacham mask dance. He answered all his questions correctly.
Now he waited for the results impatiently.
Following the weekend, Kinley rushed to school on the first day of school, running to the notice board where the results would be pinned. He took a deep breath and scanned the list. The names of the five students stood out in bold letters but his name wasn’t among them.
Kinley looked away, devastated. The whole world was crumbling around him.
His new (‘century’) friends tried to console him. At first he was sad and then angry and helpless.

But as the days and weeks passed by he got over some of his disappointments. 
Gradually, he realised to his surprise that Korea was just a dream but that he was truly happy being Bhutanese.
Photo taken by self


  1. During our schooling days, we call that transition JJK (Jabar Jasti Korean)
    Enjoyed reading la.

    1. I am aware of that and during our time it was Jabar Jasti Rock as Korean influence was not so strong. Thank you for reading Pema.

  2. Kuzusangpoo La, if you will allow a complete foreigner to greet you in your language. Your story is very interesting (why were you shy of publishing it?). During my stay in Bhutan in October the duality among the younger generation was brought up on several occasions. Our guides tended to defend the traditional optic, but it was not difficult to see what was happening, the different styles and modes. I can understand that other cultures must be tempting for the young - after all, our western Europe youngsters also copy fashions from the USA or other countries. Only, we do not have such a vast and lively culturar heritage to lose.
    But I was reading another post on your blog a while ago, where you say that you disliked Dzongkha in school and still do not know it properly. How do you teach, then? Only in English, with Dzongkha as a foreign language?
    I have been looking for ways to learn Dzongkha (that's how I came across your blog) but I wonder if it is realistic. If school is all in English, who will still speak Dzongkha in a generation? It is clear to me that the language is difficult, quite apart from the writing symbols. Older people who did not go to school much speak their own dialects, younger people will stick to English, that great linguistic leveler. So what would you advise me to do?
    Kadrinché La - Silvia -

    1. Kuzusangpo Silvia, for reading my post and taking the time to comment.
      With regard to Dzongkha, I don't dislike it now but regret for not taking it seriously then. As a boy I liked English because it was easier than Dzongkha though it is my mother tongue, the Dzongkha Language teachers didn't help much. They were strict and corporal punishment was common. I partially blame them for my weakness in Dzongkha.
      The subjects are all taught in English except Dzongkha but speaking Dzongkha is not a problem, where as speaking English is today among bhutanese students. And most students do well in Dzongkha than English.

      I am not sure what I would advise you, because I don't know how much Dzongkha you know. Like any subject or language, after picking up the basic skills I think you should practice reading, writing and speaking.Getting a Dzongkha-English Dictionary will be very helpful. I have one and if you want it I will try sending it to you.

      Kadrinche La

    2. Hello Nobu, thank you for taking the time to reply to me at such length.

      My knowledge is: nil. I have a children's booklet where the main letters (ka, kha, ga, etc.) are illustrated (bananas, fish, noodles... must be pre-school level). It is written both phonetically and in Choekey. This is very useful to identify the four vocal aggregates (ka-gi-ku-ki, etc.) which I learned, imagine, out of a novel written by Linda Leaming. But of course that's only part of the picture.
      The DDC has an excellent online Dzongkha-English dictionary with which I was able to add more aggregates (e.g. kia - kra - kla - ...) using the handful of words I know. This allows me to analyze single words and imagine how they are pronounced.
      Then I glean information here and there; in books and articles on the Internet, on pages in both languages where some words are recongnizable, and so on. I have not been able to even think about grammar yet. It's like working on a puzzle, but in the dark.

      The main problem is prononciation of the individual letters and then together with all the articulations, voiced, voiceless, and so on. But I hope I can get enough information to victimize helpless Bhutanese with questions on my next trip.
      (I realize this sounds as though I had been doing a thorough study of the language - I haven't).

      It sounds as though your official language is studied as a foreign language in school (which it is, I gather, for about 2/3 of the people). Is there no concern that it will get sort of lost as time goes on? Or, in other words: do Bhutanese WANT to learn, speak and write Dzongkha?

      Oh, and then a completely unrelated question: Do your pupils read your blog? If so, how do you keep them from cheating during exams if they know that their supervisor spends those hours concocting wonderful stories?

      Anyways, keep up the good work, here's wishing you all the best -Silvia-

    3. Thank you for your kind words for my blog.

      With Dzongkha, it is not like we study it using foreign language but it helps few who are not so sound with it. For instance, someone like me. When I read any Dzongkha material it is always better when I have a Dzongkha-English Dictionary. Dzongkha has very few nouns and in my case I am able to express myself a lot better in English than in Dzongkha. Speaking pure Dzongkha is a challenge for someone like me and over the years what has evolved is Dzonglish, a mixture of Dzongkha and English. Most young people use this and like you put it, there is this concern about losing Dzongkha. So, with the DDC's initiative some subjects at the elementary level are taught in Dzongkha. Social Studies is now taught in Dzongkha which used to be taught in English. Two years a go there was also a live debate on the national television with regard to changing the medium of instruction in the schools from English to Dzongkha. Which i feel would have proven disastrous if Dongkha had been decided as the medium of instruction in the schools. At one point the Ministry also discussed teaching History in Dzongkha but it never gained substantial support.
      What I gather from your writing to me is that you feel most bhutanese are better in English than in Dzongkha, I feel it is not so. Speaking from my classroom experience, most students are stronger in Dzongkha than in English so sometimes I have to use Dzongkha to teach stories. I am also happy to know that you are in love with my national language.

    4. Please excuse my harping on this point - maybe I should explain that I am a translator by trade and have a 'thing' about languages and how they are learned (before you begin to think I am crazy).
      I guess I have trouble understanding how you can learn a language, grammar and spelling, with what seems to me little formal training - one course within the curriculum. And do primary school children first learn to write English with our latin alphabet, or Dzongkha, or both at the same time? That must be quite a feat either way!
      It's obvious that Bhutanese prefer to speak Dzongkha to English (with the occasional English word thrown in, which is fun to listen to), because they revert to it constantly among themselves, and I'm sure it's not only so that we tourist don't understand! And I'm glad to hear that Dzongkha does remain the main language, it would be a pity otherwise, especially after all the government efforts to standardize language and spelling.
      I was reading an entry about how the DEC tried to create Dzongkha neologism for new terms (television, computer, etc.) instead of just using the English word, even adapted. I had a good laugh at that. The French, who have always hated (and still don't like) everything that comes from over the Channel, have been trying for generations to keep their language 'clean', as they say. A body of learned academics and litterates, the 'Academie Française' (the members are called 'immortals', imagine the mean age) has the task of finding and imposing alternatives to the despised anglicisms which keep slithering in. So what is a 'computer' in most of Europe is an 'ordinateur' (litt: something that creates order) in france, software becomes 'logiciel', digital 'numérique', and so on. They made a success of it because a) this dislike of all things British is very much ingrained in the population and b) most French people don't speak (much) English, not even today. But even they balked at alternative words to taxi and tennis, maybe because the terms were already well-established by the time the trend against anglicisms really started. And of course football ('le foot') is sacrosant.
      So, I've let myself get carried away. Somehow it is true that I have developed if not love, at least an attraction for Dzongkha, especially in the written form, and am having a lot of fun playing this linguistical Cluedo game. Thank you for your help.
      By the way, did you find out how the beautiful girl got her scar?

    5. Now I see why you are so interested in Dzongkha but I didn't think you were crazy, ha ha ha...
      Yes, Dzongkha and English are taught at the same time.

      I couldn't ask the girl as the students are on winter vacation but she will be back next year.

      Thank you for reading.

  3. Wow! Nobu, what a story! It was truly inspiring and interesting to read. Our youths should also learn to be more Bhutanese than Korean and get a grasp of reality rather than the illusory world. After all, we belong here. Even as I type this comment, many young children, especially girls would be engrossed in Korean serials and dreaming of going there one day! I don't have any problems with their dreams but they also should not forget their roots. A nice story indeed.

    1. Thank you Langa, I am very happy that my story had the "Wow" effect on you and you felt it important to let me know.
      Our young people are obsessed with everything Korean but I hope they realize deep down that they are Bhutanese and happy being Bhutanese.
      Thank you.

  4. As a foreign American teacher in Bhutan, I can see exactly what you have described. I often speak to my ninth graders about being conscious about what aspects of other cultures they adopt and I share some of the negative Western aspects they shouldn't incorporate in Bhutanese culture, such as smoking and joining gangs. I tell them that just because something looks fashionable doesn't mean it's in their best interest. The youth definitely depict the changing of time in Bhutan and I'm curious to see how this will play out in the future for the preservation of Bhutan's culture.

    P.S. I'm sorry to read that your Dzongkha teachers were not so inspiring. Everything happens for a reason, maybe that's what propels you write captivating English blogs and are a great teacher.

    1. Thank you for reading and the shared empathy. Yes, had it only been harmless hairstyles and stylish dresses, it would have been ok to some extent but our streets are no longer safe, especially in Thimphu. The school and the home should play vital roles as stakeholders to address this concern. Our children are our future and every adult bhutanese should work towards helping our young people appreciate our culture and the values that are important to us as Bhutanese. I feel shows like singing talent(Little Stars) have greatly helped many young people look at our traditional songs from a much better perspective. Merely telling them, I know will not help but we will have to come up with innovative ideas to keep them from doings that are unhealthy.

      Thank you for reading Sabrina. Your concern for our children and country is highly gratifying. I hope you will visit again(my blog).

  5. Hello Nobu

    interesting to know about the popular and glitzy korean culture being portrayed in Bhutan. I am half-Korean and living in Korea, and my husband is Bhutanese. However it seems like the Bhutanese youth are liking the Kpop culture, because I had grown up in the US and come back to my motherland for the first time 7 years ago and the more I learn about the Korean culture, the more my heart breaks. 5-year old kids who are sent to English classes, single girls and their mother doing anything to get then married (including plastic surgery, studying their butt off to get into a good college, etc.),
    the guys who spends all their money to buy inflated priced American or foreign things, kids having competition with each
    other at a very, very young age.

    The sad part is that this all stems from their wanting acceptance from their peers, family, or the community in general. I’ve
    noticed that Koreans tend to pay a lot of attention to what others are doing, especially on those whom they have some type of relationship with, or ones they know even slightly. It's not as bad if there is something to celebrate, but if there is something that you would rather keep private, you will get hurt because people are so ridiculously nosy here. Why do they care that a neighbor’s son did not get into the school that their son got into? Why are random people so curious about other’s private life..?!
    No wonder there are so many Korean celebrities committing suicide. They not only have no private life whatsoever, but people create rumors and spread it like a wild fire, and best of all, the media publish it like it’s a proven fact.

    While I understand that this particular behavior has something to do with the fact that Korea once was one of the poorest countries of the world (which was surprisingly not too long ago), I truly hope that they start to realize that it’s what’s killing them on the inside. Yes, the country has experienced some ridiculously rapid growth in the past ten years or so, and the people may be extremely smart and have passion, but unless they stop being so nosy (because they lack self esteem and
    are self conscious of everything), they will continue to drink away their lives.

    Speaking of drinking, I’m just disgusted at the drinking culture here. They drink alcohol and beer like it’s water. I have yet to see someone who actually drinks water here. I’m like the only one who carries a water bottle everywhere. Beer and alcohol is cheaper than coffee. It’s party time every night. There are drunken people everywhere;
    it’s actually quite easy to see a girl puking on the side walk, or a drunken man yelling at another drunken man using lots of derogatives on the streets. When I ask them why they drink, there is no direct answer, but that it’s just part of life. But why should it be?

    I want to hug every local koreans in Korea and tell them that you were made to do great things, and there is a reason why you are here today, Who cares what others are doing with their lives? It’s your life, and everyone’s
    different- the situation, skill set, personality, interest, everything. You only make your own life miserable by talking about others. Let them live their life, so you can live your own- then everyone’s happy. Yay!

    But yes, I diverged quite a lot but I think Koreans should learn from Bhutanese people: to study the dharma, to be happy, dont focus on solely the development but let them know that internal happiness and peace is much more important.

  6. Dear KED
    Thank you for reading and taking the time to write your comment. What we gather about Korea in Bhutan is through movies and television. And most Bhutanese share a common feeling that Koreans and Bhutanese have similar behavioral attitudes. Yes the Bhutanese youth are swept by the Korean wave and it is a concern to parents and the government with regard to preserving our culture and tradition.

    But even here similar things like you mentioned do happen. There is competition and people are nosy even here. It may not be as strong as it is in Korea but these things are picking up. I feel it may have to do with Korea being far more developed than Bhutan. Advancement and development brings forth these undesirable behaviors. But the government is trying to focus on developmental issues and that is why we are trying to infuse GNH values in the school curriculum. You must have heard about it. GNH's focus is education and we hope to help our future generation grow into citizens who are productive and good human beings.

    Thank you for visiting.

  7. Hi Nobu,

    What a touching story. What ever happened to young Kinley? Did he grow to embrace his Bhutanese heritage? Or did he ever get a chance to visit Korea later on? I'm so curious to hear about how he's doing.

    Thanks for always updating us with your insights - they are always appreciated. A great story indeed.