55% Mile Marker
I shove my gaze through handcrafted wheel of samsara detail in the rails of my balcony. Slumming it with a cup of coffee — enchanted (or maybe high) by the perfume of burning plastic and the view of dirtied whitewash paint which, in any photo, by any American standard, would be easily readable as “third world.” I have come to love this level of disheveled scenery. I have come to love the level of dirty and chaos.
Compared to normal, when the garden is entirely empty, the Y.T. hotel is a little bustling today. In other words, I just saw the hotel manager run for a roll of toilet paper. He is preparing for the arrival of guests who are attending the naming of “K6” tomorrow at Punakha Dzong. Yesterday a colleague was combing the forests, procuring more than 75kg of pine needles that will be used to create a carpet for the crown prince’s ceremony. In total, about 400 students were doing the same.
I’m 56% of the way through my time here. This is the cliche part of my journey where I start to explain the extravagant transformation that I have undergone since my arrival back in January. This is the part where I tell you I have made friendships that will last a life time and that I am forever changed and will be ready to come home for comfort foods and fluids. All true.
But instead, I will tell you about what happened last Thursday instead. Thimphu. I was running a fever. I had just had dinner with Bhutan’s ambassador to the United Nations, I was shivering with chills. I curled up in the bottom of the shower and soaked in the hot water for as long as it was temperate. I was meant to use this time to complete my speech for the Naropa board of trustees with whom the group would be hosting for dinner the following night. I had secured the opening “Hello I am Tinzen Wangmo, also known as the spread sheet queen.” and going on to speak about how I came to Bhutan and my research on the campus life post suicide.
I was reflecting on all the micro tares I have had on my time at ILCS campus. From the day trip to the Indian camp for Holi, to the questioning of the the head of the hostels as authority, and the investigation about where my stipend money was really going… these are the moments where I found painful amounts of frustration — but also the points at which I unearthed intercultural gold.
There are so many programs in American institutions that will send you to a beautiful city in a western world, and they will provide you with solidified connections within the local education system and they will host you in dormitories where you are hermetically sealed with other American students, with whom you will have culture shock because you grew up eating different kinds of peanut butter. But this program is different. This program is new. The learning is fresh. The encounters are unbuffered. Creature comforts are few and far between. At times, reality is brutal. And it is the perfect cacophony of ego-bruising and forgiveness that allows you to bumble through and come out the other side with a new sense of way of being.
Bhutan is my first opportunity to live abroad. Naropa provided a counselor prior to departure for culture shock counseling. I thought it was silly at the time. Now I can see how the chronic-ness of #culture-fail (and subsequent repair) could really bring someone to a breaking point. Being in Bhutan has given me a rich opportunity of things completely unexpected. From the mundane — how to fix a super splashy pipe-less sink with a coke bottle; how to kick off slippers effectively at your door when your hands are full, how to use a squeegee to deep clean an entire hostel, how to survive on instant coffee and chilies, & how to save a moth. To the profound — how to subdue evil spirits after a suicide, the real feeling of being a minority, the experience of being written out of opportunity … because I am on my period (and the whole bag of gender-inequality that goes along with that), the desire to map western psychology onto a culture in which it would be entirely inappropriate, the nuance of Facebook (and no, that is not the mundane), and what it feels like to surrender to heightened invisibility of a “high-context” culture.
Different than tourism, where everyone leaves an expert; this living abroad program is living with. I am sitting side by side with the Bhutanese (yes, sometimes kicking and screaming in a fashion that they would not) and I am entrenched in a deep way that simply cannot be experienced in an 8 day tour of the any country. There is a saying in research that goes along these lines
“After you have been somewhere for a week and you know a lot, you live somewhere for a month and you are an expect, but you live somewhere for a year and you come to realize you don’t know jack shit.”
We Americans like to come to places to learn, to earn our culture badge for our brownie sash, and make a check mark next to the name listed under a flag that was on our bucket list. We like to know things, so that we can regurgitate them… the way we were taught to do. We like to learn things so that we can be right.
I have been like that. I have wanted to be right. In traveling, on the job, in relationships and beyond. I won’t pretend like I am succeeding at abandoning this intrinsic consumerism of “knowing,”… in fact, I am the epitome of failing at it… but do I hope I leave here just a little less right and a little more Bhutanese. That is what the Bhutanese would want, and that is the gift I am (finally) prepared to receive.