On the occasion of the just-concluded visit of Her Imperial Highness Princess Mako of Japan to Bhutan, I repost a photo story of the State Visit of His Majesty the King of Bhutan to Japan in 2011 that took the relations between the two countries to a different height.
The State Visit of His Majesty the King to Japan was more than just a visit. It was a journey. A journey of life, hope and friendship. Something unexplainable which can perhaps be expressed only through images. Pictures they say tell thousand words. So while I try to put together my thoughts and reflections, here is a photo reportage.
The Imperial Family sent a car from their fleet for the Royal Couple. Among all arrangements, the security detail was impressive (but what is not impressive about Japanese way of doing things). They were there to protect the VVIP at any cost.
Japanese Emperor Akihito was not well. So His Imperial Highness Crown Prince Naruhito stood in for the Emperor. Crown Prince Naruhito had visited Bhutan in 1987 and said he “has fond memories.” (photo source – Reuters)
Japanese Prime Minister Noda called on His Majesty the King on the day the King arrived in Tokyo. The PM had also just flown in from the APEC Summit in Honolulu
The photo that moved a nation. At the Guard of Honour in the Imperial Palace, His Majesty pays homage to Bhutan – Japan friendship by bowing down to the two flags. This scene made every Bhutanese proud and brought every Japanese to tears.
(photo courtesy – Reuters)
His Majesty the King greeting the children at the Welcoming Ceremony (Imperial Palace)
In an unprecedented move, perhaps defying the standard protocol, the Empress called on His Majesty at the place where the King was staying.
The State Banquet in honour of His Majesty the King and Her Majesty the Queen. In his banquet address His Majesty paid homage to the emperor and to the people of Japan for the special bond. I sat next to Honorary Consul to Bhutan, Hitomi Tokuda and the beautiful wife of trade minister Yukio Edano. Edano is famous for his role as the cabinet secretary in the post March 11 disaster. I also shared a wonderful joke with finance minister Jun Azumi. I also heard the most beautiful Bhutan’s national anthem played here by the Imperial household orchestra.
Fans and wellwishers wait for the King and Queen outside the Kieo University Hall. Everywhere we went ordinary people and photographers became a part of the scene.
His Majesty receiving Honorary Doctorate in Economics from Kieo University. “Our generation is called upon to rethink, to redefine the true purpose of growth. And in doing so, to find a growth that is truly sustainable.” The King said in his acceptance speech
His Majesty addressing the joint session of parliament in Tokyo. His Majesty expressed his solidarity with the people affected by the earthquake and also supported Japan’s aspiration as permanent member in the UN Security Council. “Bhutan not only believes in the need to expand the United Nations Security Council, we are convinced that Japan must play a leading role in it. You have our full commitment and support.” The Speech was televised live by NHK and webstreamed by the Diet secretariat.
At Meiji Shrine. People as far as Kagoshima in South Japan were following the State Visit through newspapers, live TV reports and updates.
Butlers, chefs, cleaners and staff of Akasaka Palace, where the King was staying in Tokyo, line up to bid goodbye to the King and Queen
In Sakuragako School in Fukushima those who weren’t invited wrapped the building making the Japanese security details quite nervous.
Inhabitants of Fukushima cheer the Royal Couple with Bhutan flag in response to King’s much-appreciated gesture to visit the region. Someone wrote to me “HM’s visit to Japan was like as if the real dragon showed up out of the blue clearing out the gloom and brought happy smiles to the Japanese people with the sun light after the storm
The Japanese security looked very nervous when His Majesty did what he love doing – dive into a crowd (photo courtesy – Yukio Tanaka)
There were excitements, smiles, gratitude and curiosities all around. Some said they could finally smile after a long time
Children and adults alike – all were either curious or touched by the royal presence in their locality.
People came out of their houses and work places and waived Bhutan flags all along the 100 km or so ride from Fukushima station to Soma Port.
“Remember there is a dragon in each one of us,” His Majesty told the children in Sakuragako School who also put up few cultural performances.
Hard evidence of a tragedy. A fishing boat still stands on top of a 20 meter wall. In some places here the tsunami reached 40 meters.
Soma City – Fukushima. His Majesty joins in for the prayer ceremony led by venerable Dorji Lopen – Bhutan’s second highest monk. “No nation or people should ever have to experience such suffering. And yet if there is one nation who can rise stronger and greater from such adversity – it is Japan and her People. Of this I am confident.” The King had told in his address to the Japanese parliament.
HM King and Queen thanking the people of Fukushima for love and affection and the unexpected warm reception. (photo courtesy – Hiroko Kobori)
Many people came out with banners that read “kadrinche”, “tashi telek”, and “Joen pa legso” . Some had even decorated their homes and gates. It was simply moving to see how much this visit meant to them
His Majesty and Her Majesty surprised the hosts in Kyoto by turning up at the Governor’s banquet in hakama and kimono. One female journalist confided to me that she nearly fainted
Men in Black. We wore our national dress throughout the Visit except on the day we left Japan. It is almost rare that we have any pictures of ourselves from these tours. But we made exception for Japan.
Some of the Japanese media covered the State Visit until the very end. We bid them farewell recognising deep in our hearts that they had done a great service to the relation between our two countries. Japan Times dedicated an editorial.
The entire Japanese foreign ministry team joined the Kyoto Governor and stayed on and waived as His Majesty and Her Majesty waived back from the aircraft. There is no goodbye word in Dzongkha, our national language. Only “see you again” and this really goes for this wonderful land and wonderful people.
My Facebook timeline and message box are filled up with “Happy Teachers Day” from my former students of Sherubtse College. To my pleasant surprise too, many students who were not in my course, but happened to listen to me in morning college assemblies and guest lectures, also dropped heart-warming messages. To all of you, I can just say, “Thank you” for all the outpouring of love and gratitude.
Teaching is the only job I did where I am remembered – at least once a year. In all other positions I held, it seems people make extra efforts to forget you. Just kidding.
I had a short stint as a teacher – for three semesters in Sherubtse followed by a year in RTC. Yet, in those few years, I have come to love this profession, admire those who are doing it as lifelong career and enjoy the goodwill of so many students. Currently, I am teaching assistant at the University of Macau as a part of my doctoral studies.
Let me share my teaching experience and approach; what drives me and what could make teaching worthwhile. You can call this Eight-Fold Path in Teaching Profession.
Path #1: Every student is someone’s child. In the two-day drive from Thimphu to Kanglung, when I got myself assigned there in September of 2013, I had just one question on my mind: what makes a great teacher. I have excelled in almost everything I did in my life. Under no circumstances, I wanted to fail here. I couldn’t think of any great strategy until, somewhere, when I was crossing Thrumshingla, I got a call from my daughter, Tseten. It was a usual call to check where I had reached. But that call just reminded me that I was a father of a daughter, who was someone’s student. So, it sparked a related question: What would I wish from her teacher so that my daughter do well? Tseten had a terrific teacher when she was in Dr. Tobgyel School – Subho Banerjee, who wanted her to succeed more than I did. So, there was the answer to my search. Every student is someone’s child and that someone would like the child to succeed. Think of that someone as you. Make sure that each of your students succeed like how you would do to your own children. That’s why Don Bosco became one of the greatest educators in history. He treated all his students like his children.
Path #2: Avoid prejudice. Be loved. When I was receiving briefings in Thimphu I was warned not to be too idealistic and to be prepared to deal with so-called bad students. I really didn’t let that advice bother me. From my own experience of being a little devil myself in school, we often do things based on who were are as person, the circumstances we grew up with, and dreams each one of us cultivate for the future. In other words, we are all different. Understanding those differences is key to cultivating good connection with your students and opening the great potentials in each one of them. There is no harm in being loved and being popular as a teacher. As Rita Pierson once said, kids don’t learn from people they hate. Avoid prejudgment. As my late mother used to tell me, waktsa ray, soenam ray (Every child comes with one fortune). Your job is to help the student find that fortune.
Path #3: The Why question. All the teachers I met know what to teach. Many know how to teach. But only a few know why they teach. A good teacher needs to make the students understand why they are learning what is being taught. If you do that then, a very small effort from you will have them fired up. They will figure out on their own how to learn. I used to start every new semester and every new class with a simple assignment: to write an essay on Who am I? Why am I here? What am I doing? Likewise, in life the question why is more important than what. Take any situation. Many people know what to do. Few know how to do it. But not many know why they do what they do. That’s the difference between success and failure; between leaders and losers. Tony Robbins says adopting Why in life will make you a champion.What will instead make you mere spectator.
Path #4: Dare to disturb the universe. Literature students will recognise this phrase from a poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by TS Elliot. As teachers, we must dare to disturb the universe if we want our students to think out of the box, open their minds or look beyond. While you must deliver the curriculum (I do that too) there is no rule or policy that says you can’t teach more. Time, of course, is limited but you can find it if you have the will. In Sherubtse, I took extra classes with tea and samosa as incentives. Many students worked, fell asleep on the table in the lab, woke up and worked till the morning Sun – on several occasions. They just didn’t want to stop. Then, we had picnics and field trips where I taught them how to learn to trust one another, empathise and cherish every moment. We had potlucks dinners where we sang and danced – and share what we could bring.
Path #5: Don’t teach. Inspire. When I decided to become a teacher one thing that I promised myself was never to “teach” or “lecture” or preach – but share my knowledge, experiences and the little wisdom I had gathered. Most importantly, I resolved to tell the differences between the three. Hence, every communication theory I shared carried a direct story from the field. Learning is not only a transfer of knowledge. In this day and age, there is Lord Google and King Wikipedia where people can look up for the so-called knowledge. Knowledge is everywhere and these young kids can find them before you can even punch the password to your smartphone. Teaching is a personal, emotional, and spiritual journey – not just an intellectual exercise. Share your experiences. Make it relevant. Inspire them to take charge towards learning. Let them drive their own vehicle. After you get off the car (one day you will), they will keep driving on their own. Much later after I left Sherubtse I learnt that this is called experiential learning.
Path #6: Provide reasons to come to class. Not fear. Attendance was, and is, like a bible in Royal University colleges. If there is one thing I would eliminate immediately, that is it. For me, if your lessons and lectures are not worth listening to, there is no point hiding behind a rule to ensure the students come to class. Your students should look forward to your class. Otherwise, you have failed. I rarely took attendance but while talking or during class exercise I would also do a mental survey of who were missing. Very few would miss my lessons anyway. I would know but I would never reprimand anyone. Instead, I would work harder to make the class so rewarding that the attending students would share with pride with the absentees. They should be like, “You missed the class? Oh, my God! You can’t imagine what you missed”.
Path #7: Build cooperation, not competition. Our educational system has one major flaw: grading the students in percentages. And thereby creating a caste system in Hindu. By doing that we are not only decimating them, we are also creating unhealthy conflicts, divisions and jealousies. That’s bad for our small country. Little wonder then that no one listens to anyone in the government these days.
“This is your best chance to build long lasting friendships,” I used to tell my students ad nauseum. Now that most of them are out in the unforgiving world called jobs – fighting lonely battles, I guess they realise what I meant back then. To their credit though, I noticed, many became close friends and there was lot of cooperation. Make sure your students build friendships and communities – not confrontations and ego.
Path # 8: Respond to questions with questions. Now this may sound rude but I hate to think of myself as the repository of knowledge. The role of teachers in this age of 4G and smartphones is not to give out answer but to instigate questions. Curiosity should be encouraged – not scorned. They should also make you think and challenge you as a teacher. Try to respond to questions with more questions so that it gets them to think further and deeper – and to think critically. I used to be often asked, “Sir, is there press freedom in our country?” And my answers were: Do you mean absolute press freedom or relative press freedom? There is a difference. Do you think there is press freedom even in countries like India or the US? Do you think Barkha Dutt really says everything she wants to say?
The Greek philosopher, Socrates, never gave answers. He sent people away with questions. Engage students to ask questions – not to recite answers from their memory. History was made by people who asked questions. E.g. What did Isaac Newton ask? What did Prince Siddharta seek?
For some years now, I have been wondering why there is a surge in diabetes and hypertension cases in Bhutan. The conventional wisdom, and that’s what the doctors say, is that people need to move and exercise more. While sedentary lifestyle brought about by greater mobility, TV and 3G contributes to the problem, it does not explain why farmers are also grappling with these same health issues. During my time in Sherubtse I carried around one Omron BP monitor and a thermometer (I needed them for myself, actually) and I did some random measurements and found incidences of hypertension in almost all the villages I did my “research”. I am not a medical doctor and so I didn’t prescribe any medicines. But my relatives were very impressed with me. They thought I had mastered even medicines besides engineering.
Jokes aside, I have given a lot of thoughts on this and have browsed through several articles and scientific papers. Here are the three major possible causes. These are, obviously, in addition to what the doctors always tell us. These hypotheses are also supplemented by my own anecdotal evidences. I wish I could do a systematic and longitudinal study and collaborate with some medical professionals to make more conclusive claims. However, in Bhutan, research culture is nonexistent or badly under-resourced. In some cases, it is also frowned upon. Hence, to highlight the issue this article should suffice.
The traditional Bhutanese style of cooking rice involved throwing away the starch. In my family, we fed it to the dogs and used it to pre-dye the threads before weaving. Rice is 92% starch and 8% fibre. Starch, like sugar, turns into glucose in the blood stream and thus the consumption of starchy food can elevate your blood sugar levels. In the early 1980s, Hawkins pressure cooker hit the Bhutanese market and soon after Japanese rice cookers followed. Now Chinese cookers have reached wherever the Bhutan Power Corporation has taken the electricity to. In other words, at least in 95% of the country. The traditional way has almost disappeared because it is more convenient to use the electric cookers. However, when using them, the starch in the rice remains intact. Rice prepared this way is tastier but less healthy. Rice itself is not unhealthy but the cooking method, the amount we eat and the frequency of consumption make it very unhealthy.
Rice is a staple food in Asia. The Chinese, Japanese and Thai people also eat rice. However, they don’t eat the same quantity like the Bhutanese. They eat lots of noodles too. We, Bhutanese, are the only 100-percent-rice-eating-nationality in the world – by far the biggest rice-eaters per capita. We eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even as snacks (zow). When I was growing up in Tashigang, rice was only for special occasions. Except in western and southern Bhutan, east and central regions mainly consumed maize, buckwheat, wheat and millet. Now it is rice everywhere – and in every meal – not even every day.
What is known as doma is composed of three ingredients – betel leaf, areca nut and slaked lime. Besides the known fact that betel nuts are carcinogen (causing oral cancer) while lime erodes stomach linings (leading to gastritis, ulcer and stomach cancer), eating doma causes taste buds to become progressively insensitive. This makes one to add more salt or sugar to feel the taste of the food.
Geography – altitude
A study in the US was done to see if altitude changed our taste sensory. The research studied a group of participants at 3,500 meters above sea level for a period of three weeks. The subjects were asked to rate four compounds representing sweet, salty, sour and bitter taste over the period.
The result? An increase in the taste thresholds for glucose (sugar) and sodium chloride (salt). In other words, the participant felt that the same amount of salt and sugar they consumed at sea level was not adequate anymore. In fact, that’s the reason why airline food tastes bad, which also explains why cabin food comes with additional packets of salt, sugar and pepper. You would have noticed that if you live in Thimphu or Paro and you descend to Phuntsholing or Bangkok (lower altitude) you will find yourself hungry all the time. That’s because your taste buds work better and the increased oxygen at low altitude burns the food faster in your body.
What can you do?
Unfortunately, we can do nothing about the altitude but just know the fact that our body requires less salt and sugar than our taste buds ‘feel’ the need.
And then there are few things that are in our control.
Return to traditional cooking style. Remove the starch when cooking or throw away the rice cooker. It is an additional work but better than losing your health. Cook the traditional style. Otherwise, reduce rice consumption and replace with local choices such as khulay (buckwheat pancakes from Bumthang) roti (from Southern Bhutan) or mix rice with kharang (maize from Eastern Bhutan). Buy Bhutanese. It will be good for our farmers; it will help ensure our food security because bulk of rice we consume is imported; and you have reduced risk of being diabetic. I normally switch between rice, pasta and bread. When I was in Kanglung I ate lots of kharang. Make small changes. Take baby steps. Don’t jump from rice to kharang in one day. Your body will go mad.
Be careful with salt. Salt is cheap and
easily available nowadays. When I was growing up, salt was in very limited supply (we rationed it very carefully). Besides, refined sugar or candies were totally unknown. Thais, Japanese and Chinese people hardly use salt in their cuisines – preferring soya sauce instead. Not to be culturally insensitive, but our suja is, health-wise, one of the worst drinks our forefathers invented. It is a bomb. It has saturated fat (butter), lots of salt (which saturates the butter even more) and an unknown and imported “tea” that comes mixed with baking soda (not sure of this chemical components either).
Stop eating doma. Your taste buds will return to normal and food will taste better. And the town will be lot cleaner too. Forget the pact with Guru Rimpoche. That’s a myth.
(PS: The reference links to some of the articles have been provided in the article)
On the eve of the official visit of the Bangladeshi Prime Minister to Bhutan, I reproduce a blog entry I made six year ago when His Majesty the King visited Bangladesh as the Chief Guest for their most important 40th Anniversary of Independence. The article was carried by the national newspaper, the Daily Star, back then.
Dhaka – March 28, 2011 – I must be honest. In the past when I came across Bangladeshis mentioning that Bhutan was the first country to recognise them in 1971, it never occurred to me that it meant so much to them. I would just smile and give a standard reply. It was only this time, accompanying His Majesty to their 40th Independence celebrations, that I realised the genuineness of their historic claim.
On 26th March in 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared independence from West Pakistan. Bangladesh was till then referred to as East Pakistan and ruled from Islamabad following the Partisan in 1947. Some nine months of bloodshed ensued where over three million people were killed and over ten million displaced.
40 years on, the scars of that liberation war remain deep. The mere mention of their freedom struggle brings back painful memories to many. There is not a single person in Bangladesh, whose life has not been affected by that tragic period. Once this context is clear, one then understands the deeper meaning of Bhutan’s action in their defining moment.
The show of gratitude towards Bhutan was overwhelming. On 26th March 2011, when our King, who was the Guest of Honour, entered the National Stadium, the entire crowd cheered. When Premier Sheikh Hasina, in her Address to the Nation, told the people that they should never forget what Bhutan has done for them, the entire stadium applauded again. Everywhere we went people lined up in thousands to greet our King. The Airport and every street where the Royal Entourage passed were locked for few hours. Our hosts and the hotel staff did everything to make sure we were well taken care. Every little detail was worked out meticulously. A café manager in the hotel where we were staying even offered free espresso to me every morning. “How many times would your King visit us anyway? It is on the house,” He said with pride and gratitude.
Apart from enjoying free espressos and official receptions I couldn’t help but also develop a great sense of respect and appreciation for Bangladesh and for the wonderful people there. In every media report I had come across in the past, Bangladesh was considered a young, poor, over-populated and a disaster-prone country. I now have a different view. I see a nation of 160 million with centuries of history and with a great future. A beautiful country with humble and hard-working people who can build ships and satellites and not just ready-made garments and jute carpets.
Bhutan’s support for Bangladesh in 1971 was historic. As Bhutanese I felt proud of the visionary move by our Third Druk Gyalpo. The Late King went to great length to also help the refugees that poured into India. To add to that, His Majesty the King, in his State Banquet speech this time, offered “a life-long friendship and steadfast support to the government and people of Bangladesh.” It is obvious that Bhutan would always find a friend, ally and good neighbour in Bangladesh. Such developments augur well not only for the people of Bhutan and Bangladesh but also for the peace, stability and prosperity in our region.
We should now work towards nurturing this special relationship so that the mutual trust, goodwill and confidence would translate into actions and benefits for our two people for all time to come.
(PS – the original blog entry is here http://dorjiwangchuk.blogspot.com/2011/04/memories-of-bangladesh.html)
Hence, I agree with the Prime Minister that we need to look at the issue of distance education with a more favourable eyes and mind. The existing policy, which frowns on distance education, could have been formulated at a time when there was no easy way to check the validity of the degree or the accreditation of the degree-granting institutions. These days it just takes a click for anyone to verify the academic transcripts and the institutions – and even send out enquiries.
A free-for-all and blanket approval, though, may not be advisable still, as it might attract a floodgate of dubious cases. A total disregard for qualifications acquired through distance learning is not right either. A more cautious and middle-path approach would be to entrust the Bhutan Accreditation Council (not sure if this office has been constituted but there was an interim council in 2015) under the Department of Higher Education to selectively choose and approve institutions that meet certain benchmark. The idea and intent should be to move gradually but move nevertheless – and not jump from a total ban to a free-for-all situation like we did with television.
Furthermore, not encouraging our people to take advantage of this new modus operandi in education may be shortchanging ourselves of the immense opportunities offered by the MOOC. Every prestigious university from Harvard to Hong Kong and from Stanford to Singapore provide free courses (I have attended 5 so far but completed only 3. It is not easy either) and even full degree programs (these are charged). The future of higher education will be online. Many countries have already integrated distance learning within their educational qualification framework.
Likewise our own colleges under the Royal University of Bhutan should work, and should be allowed to work, towards granting distance education with perhaps a semester or a year of required campus-residency. This would not only allow for more people to access higher education at relatively lower cost to the national exchequer but would open up to a huge untapped international market.
We need to update our rules with the changing times – after all they are not cast in stone, I presume. Not everyone has the means or the opportunity to pursue higher education in a campus. That’s why Australia beckons because it offers both.
With or without government endorsements, our youth need to pursue learning as a lifelong habit. This is because the new era runs at gigabit per second and they will be quickly outsmarted, and made outdated, by the changing circumstances and job market. Have they ever understood why there is no job at the end of your education cycle? It is because the goal post has shifted. No one has lied to them or given them false promises. It is simply that the world has changed while they were studying. So learning new skills or extra skills and acquiring new knowledge are the only way to survive – and thrive.
To conclude, what can the government and the society do to assist our future citizens? We need to remove restrictive rules and policies if we are to prepare them adequately to face this uncertain world. As the educationist, Ken Robinson, says, no one knows what the world will look like in three years time let alone by the time our children finish their education. And so, every opportunity to learn, educate and enhance one’s knowledge should be explored and encouraged – not frowned upon.
Flying, which used to be one of the most glamorous ways of travelling, is quite a nightmare these days. In the post-911 era, air travel has become a pain and nauseatingly complicated at times. At best the experience is dampened by airlines jamming more seats and packing us like sardines in tin boxes. And now we have this nightmarish video of a passenger, in the ‘greatest’ country on Earth: US of A, being dragged down the aisle like a mailbag.
Honestly, I was very disturbed by what I saw – to the point of feeling like an idiot – because I have flown United Airlines. Maybe it was because they picked on an Asian-looking guy or maybe, this was the last straw on the loads of racist narratives coming out of the US these days. Anyway it was not just me but the whole world, especially this part of the globe, that is upset.
My father, who was a truck driver, took a better care of his loads of potatoes than how some big airlines from the ‘civilised’ countries – the US in particular, treat their human cargo. On a flight from New York to San Francisco in 2014, I was even made to pay for water.
Still, since flying is the best way to get around, let me share how we in Bhutan also ‘re-accomodate’ our passengers – and where flying is still fun and glamorous. And where passengers are not just payloads or figures on the balance sheets, but human beings.
Flight overbooking is a norm in airline business. But in Bhutan, we never overbook. Instead, we under-book our flights. That’s because the airport is at 7,500 feet above sea level – and engines, like humans, need a good level of oxygen to efficiently burn the jet fuel. And oxygen is bit in short supply at this altitude while the iron birds have to safely soar up the high mountains that encircle the Paro International Airport. The aircrafts are, therefore, handicapped from taking off at full capacity. Also, our airlines don’t bump off passengers in favor of their employees. On most occasions, it is the other way around. Employees are kept on hold till all paying passengers are checked in.
Nevertheless, giving up seats on Bhutanese airlines happens all the time. But we don’t use computers. We use human beings. They look towards the cabin and identify the most-agreeable looking Bhutanese to give up the seat. It should be Bhutanese because all foreigners are guests in Bhutan. So twice, that person happened to be me. Once it was to hand over the seat of my three-year old daughter. I was asked to put her on my lap. “What’s happening?” I asked. The air-hostess replied that there was an emergency medical evacuation. As I lifted my daughter to take her seat and vacate mine, I jokingly asked, “OK! But what does Druk Air give me in return?” “Anything,” the air-hostess replied helping me to clear the seat. And seconds later I found a soldier who was wounded at the frontier – taking my seat. In Bhutan we rarely ask why we do good things. We just do it. And we don’t limit to offering just 800 bucks. Our airlines offer “anything”, which both parties later forget anyway.
The second time was in 2003 when I got my first chance to fly the business class – courtesy of my Japanese hosts who were paying for my trip. I had just settled on the spacious leather seat when a flight attendant leaned over to me and asked if I could go to the Economy section. “Why?” I asked. In Bhutan we don’t say, ‘I paid’, or protest. Money is not everything and passengers are not just PNR numbers. The flight attendant explained that they had a VIP travelling at last minute and I would be compensated for moving to the Economy. As we were negotiating – and as I was trying to cling to my rare chance to fly business, the chief steward, who was in kindergarten with me, rushed into the cabin. He didn’t even wish me. He instantly turned back to the exit door with, “Oh! It’s Dorji Wangchuk. No problem.” In Bhutan, we can still take our friends and family members for granted. No apologies and public statements are required. However, you can also hit back for being downgraded to the coach. When the lunch was served, I told the chief steward to serve me the food from the business class – and also to pack me some fruits, bread, wine, soft drinks and beer for my long transit time through Bangkok Airport – which he grudgingly obliged. Many flights later I also reclaimed my business class seat, for free, as I wasn’t feeling well that day. The crew members didn’t even ask for proof.
Another time, the captain was one of my good friends, whom I had not seen for a while. As soon as he saw me boarding the plane he said, “Drop your bags and come over. I know you like flying.” Moments later I was bolted on the jump seat behind him like a child with the seat belt crossing all over my body. The take-off was spectacular and the pit-stop landing in Kolkata was a walk in the park for our pilots used to the treacherous Paro International – considered the world’s most difficult airport. As more passengers joined in for onward flight to Bangkok, my pilot friend informed me, “Now you can’t go back to your seat. It is taken. We picked up one extra passenger here.” In Bhutan, if we have to release a seat, we can tie up someone in the cockpit. It is very uncomfortable in there for a 4-hour flight but the view is simply marvellous.
Of course, we are not perfect. Like, we rarely fly on time. The Bhutan Standard Time has been redubbed as Bhutan Stretchable Time. We are improving though – especially if we have to fly out. But when we fly into Bhutan we have our own definition of time. Few years ago, I met a Swiss couple who was visiting a common friend of ours in Thimphu. They missed their flight in Delhi and arrived a day later. “What happened? You guys overslept or got struck in the traffic?” I asked. They looked at each other and smiled and went, “Well, we actually got to the airport one and half hour before the flight.” “Then?” I asked – bit surprised. “We were informed that the flight was not on time. And that it just left.” “Left? Before time? Did you guys protest?” “Yes, we did. We were told very nicely that our ticket clearly reminds us that because of weather conditions in Paro, flights may not be on time. And that only westerners think that ‘not on time’ means delays. Not on time could also mean before the time.” A brief silence. Then we all bursted out laughing. And my friends continued, “We thought you guys are absolutely right. Why should not-on-time be always behind? It can also mean ahead of the stipulated time. We always learn a new thing every time we come to Bhutan”.
(PS. The whole of Bhutan has 6 airplanes and 2 helicopters. We are better off than John Travolta by the two helicopters.)
Failures, education and learning are three different things. But the modern society has jumbled them into a perfect blend trapping thousands of young people into hopelessness.
First, it kills me that our young people cannot deal with failures and disappointments in life. Why is this happening? Who taught them that life is a smooth sail? Who is responsible for giving false hopes? How do we teach people to embrace failures and disappointments?
A young Facebook friend wrote to me few days back (I get such requests very frequently from young people) asking me how he could help his friend to deal with a failure. Apparently his friend couldn’t qualify for college. I don’t know why people have to rush to college. I made my daughter work as a receptionist in Dorji Elements for 2 years before she figured out what to do and resumed her studies.
Anyway here is the advice I wrote to my facebook friend. I thought this might be relevant to many facing similar dilemma.
Dear…….. I have two suggestions and a word of caution for your friend.
1. Not being able to continue his studies is neither the end of the world nor the end of his learning life. I, myself, was interrupted three times in my life on my road to formal education. First, after I finished class X when the government insisted I joined the job market (1982 to 1983). Second, after I completed my diploma from Dewathang (1985 to 1988) and third, after all these years since I graduated in 1995 (this was, of course, my own doing). So the key to continuing his studies is not to keep banging his head of being a student at all cost but to take a diversion and to resume after some time – like I did.
2. He can take up some petty jobs – any job that would give him an honest income – and then he could take an evening BA course at the Royal Thimphu College. (And in 4 years he has his ‘dream’ paper. Not sure if it would be useful but there is a 46-year-old shopkeeper who is doing that, together with many younger students. They work the whole day and come to class in the evening. It is the same degree course).
The word of caution to your friend is never to look at formal education as the only way to success or to live. Education and learning are tools to help you become a better person, a good human being and a productive citizen. It should not be seen as an escape from poverty, as a piece to show off to others, or to pursue just because your classmates are also doing that. I hope these all make sense.”
Second, I hate that our society has created just one channel of thought, just one means to live and one way to be human – Get a college degree, or you are nothing. It is not just in Bhutan but everywhere. While I support formal education (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing here), what I strongly advocate is learning, and in fact lifelong learning. Education and learning for me are both useful tools to see, feel and experience the world fully – and differently. However, education and learning are altogether different. Education is a systematic learning and that’s it. But learning is a natural process that should not stop after a formal education.
Even without, or with less, formal education we can survive. When I was in the 7th grade (and I was just 12) I did house wirings in Tashigang town and in my village during school holidays and earned ‘tons’ of money. Two months and four houses = Nu. 800! Can you imagine? My father’s monthly salary was just Nu. 210. Other times, when I was growing up, I also worked as plumber and electrician and repaired sawmills and rice grinding machines. However, I wouldn’t have survived without learning. As as neonate I learnt to breathe and cry and feed myself. As a toddler, I learnt to walk, speak, tie my lace and say, kuzuzangpo. As I grew up I learnt many other skills besides what the education system gave me. As a matter of fact, from some of those skills I even launched very successful careers in documentary filmmaking, journalism, teaching and social work.
And my learning continues even to this day. But after my PhD, I might work as barista (I can serve free coffee to myself), bookseller (inspired by Bookseller of Kabul) or a builder (building stuff is in my blood) or as a teacher (wherever they want me. Would love to teach on the steppes of Mongolia). Now, am I wasting my time pursing PhD? Absolutely not. As I said, I am savouring the experience, the process and the different
worlds beyond the civil service, engineering, media, filmmaking and parenthood. I am in the world of philosophy (reading Aristotle, Confucius, Gebser, Foucault); the world of anthropology and socio-linguistics (works of Boas, Geertz, Labov); the world of Buddhism, which I thought I was in but realised I knew nothing (so reading Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti, Dzongsar Khyentse); and lastly, the fantastic realm of research and discovery – of old knowledge and new paradigms. This is actually what brought along this PhD thing. I started pursuing what I tentatively coined as middle path communication – a new theoretical framework for Bhutan in the age of social media. So PhD isn’t my goal but just a means.
To summarise, failures, education and learning are three different things. And then there is qualification – altogether a different animal, which together with titles and decorations, are things we are so addicted to. But I am also aware that it is not their fault. The modern society has jumbled all these into a perfect blend, which has trapped thousands of youth across the country, and millions worldwide. In Bhutan we do that:
Socially: We characterise education as an escape from poverty and also equate farming to hell. “If you don’t want to study, do you want to look after cows?” Bhutanese parents often tell their children. We also give shallow advice: Just get a degree and your life is made. We provide false hope: Study hard so that you don’t have to struggle later. And my all time favourite: Zaaai! You have graduated. Now you can enjoy the rest of your life.
Systematically: For the education system, you are just a number. If you hit 62.5, you have made it to heaven (welcome to Sherubtse College). 62.4? You can go to hell. We even use massacring words like “cut-off” points.
I could go on but let me stop here and post a TED talk video of this extraordinary guy, Sonam Wangchuk (no relation to me. He is an Indian from Ladakh) who returned to his community and has some great answers and solutions.
It was late October 2002. I was with the Bhutan Broadcasting Service then.
With my cameraman, Sonam Loday, and soundman, Tshering Norbu, we were on the last day of our trek to Singye Dzong. After our lunch break we thought we had got closer to our destination and so we sent our guide ahead. We have been filming along the way, since we left our camp in Thangkarmo, and we continued to do that day too – which actually slowed our progress.
Then the Sun was almost at the horizon when we realized that we were nowhere near our destination. We packed our gear and zoomed off. I started worrying but managed to hide it from my two younger colleagues. The trail was never ending. Did we miss our path? We were told that at the intersection of Doksum, we should take the valley to the left, which we did. The one to the right would have taken us to another valley – Rongmateng.
Late afternoon turned into evening, which also gave way to the darkness. And still no sign of inhabitation or religious sites whatsoever. Usually they are marked with prayer flags or chortens. Nothing except dense jungle and total darkness made creepier by a furious sound of the river gushing below us. We kept going. My two colleagues followed me. They thought I knew the way. But I was already panicking. We were warned from Khoma not to undertake the journey for it was late autumn and the yak herders would have already left for lower valleys. In fact it was our second day that we had not met any soul. Did I push too far? Did I put the lives of others at risk? My heart started pounding even faster because of such thoughts. I was breathing faster and because of pantings and hyperventilation I was getting dizzy. My vision was getting blurry. We slowed down and I said to myself, “If we don’t get to our destination in another 10 minute I am as good as dead.”
Then as we turned around a corner I thought I head some prayer flags fluttering in the darkness. Was I hallucinating? I stopped and I pointed my flashlights. There besides a string of worn-out prayer a flag was a small rock carving of Guru Padma Sambhava and a marker, ‘Way to Singye Dzong’. “Yes!” I thought. “We are on the right track. Thanks, Man. You save my life” I silently told Guru. We stopped, dropped our loads and I took out my small towel from my bag and covered my face. Out of sheer joy and relief, I cried silently. It was dark and so we couldn’t see each other’s faces. We could only hear gasping for air from the brisk walk and from the very high altitude we were already at. With my energy recharged, literally, an hour later, at close to midnight, we reached our campsite.
During our week-long stay in that area we saw nothing but rocks and caves. There is actually no dzong in Singye Dzong. Dzong is a metaphor. Every ancient Dzongkha word, I was told, has three meanings – the outer, which we are all familiar with, the inner and the secret. It is called chi nang, saang. The nang meaning of dzong is “a peaceful place” – a sanctuary. In fact the place is so peaceful and exudes an energy that you can feel right to the core of your heart.
I am sharing this story in light of a recent news report that rock carvings of religious figures would be banned in Bhutan. I hope that people who make such decision will also read my story. Had it not been for that small rudimentary work of rock art, which are now being termed as religious desecration, I wouldn’t be alive or I would be telling a different story.
The presence of the sacred and the spiritual energy is found both outside and inside the temples. While others may not have such a dramatic story like mine, I have had friends who visited Bhutan and felt powerful the energy everywhere. The presence of a chorten here, a rock carving there, water-driven prayer wheels in a distance and prayer flags everywhere, exude energy like nowhere else. Hence, I am not sure how these things are sacrilegious. Do we really need to regulate them? Shouldn’t we be actually encouraging such religious pursuits?
My Facebook timeline is flooded with pictures of the snowfall in Thimphu.
It is heartening to see people getting joy out of simple things like a snowfall. I have never understood this pleasant collective euphoria – and the disappointments in the past years when it didn’t snow.
It is heartening because if GNH means anything, it is the ability to find joy in those small things in life that give you togetherness and make you feel, share, forget and live your moment. It is finding happiness and contentment in what modern capitalism has long melted them away as things trivial.
I have taken the liberty to copy-paste some pictures out of the pages (mostly of my friends so that no one sues me for copyright. Need to be careful these days) and have given my own narrative and captions. Enjoy till it lasts. And, of course, to paraphrase an Indian teacher in remote Bhutan, Let them snow!
On the sixth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, here is my story of how I was caught in the Japan during those dramatic days.
March 11, 2011 – I was at a lunch in Akasaka (downtown Tokyo) with two of my friends, Sakitsu san from the NHK World and Ogawa san of Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS). I was on an official visit to prepare for the State Visit of our King, which was to happen two months later.
As we were eating, chatting and sharing the old times, the building started shaking. Mildly at first. “It’s normal,” one of them reassured me. But the quake only intensified and things started falling down around us. Some people started screaming outside. Sakitsu took out his phone and was rather shocked by what he saw on the mini-screen, “It is a big one. It hit off the coast of Fukushima. Tsunami alert along the Pacific Coast.” The emergency siren rang. Immediately he excused himself and rushed off. Ogawa, seeing me little dazed, asked me to follow him to his office – the TBS building, which is probably one of the safest buildings in Tokyo. I followed him. In the streets people were running all over the place. Another shake. I felt like I was trying to walk down the aisle of an airplane midair under severe turbulence. A big earthquake had just hit Japan.
The 9.2 magnitude earthquake has released an energy that was equivalent to 30,000 times the power of the atomic bomb that was dropped over Hiroshima during the World War II. But more than the earthquake (because Japan was prepared for it) it was the tsunami it triggered that devastated the north-eastern coast.Scenes of cities beings washed away, like in the movie Day After Tomorrow, were flashed on TV news over and over again. At the time of posting this article, over 3,000 people have been confirmed dead, as many were still missing and over quarter of a million have been left homeless or directly affected.
The response to the disaster was quick. Over 1.2 million people were evacuated within minutes after the tsunami alarm went off along the Pacific Coast – from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu islands in the South. Relief and recovery teams went into action even before the first wave of Tsunami hit the Iwate prefecture (which was closest to the epicenter). Trains, airports and subways were suspended and elevators in every building in Japan were disabled with clockwork precision. The Self Defence Force (Japan’s army) was put into action and the Parliament suspended the debate and the session to allow the government to deal with the crisis.
But what really amazed me was not the Japanese efficiency at work. Rather the courage and the dignity with which the people, even those who were directly affected, dealt with the tragedy. It is often said that the worst of times brings the best and the worst in us. In the case of Japan, it brought only the best. Although left with nothing for themselves and for their family, people lined up in the usual orderly manner – to get some food, buy some supplies or to make telephone calls from public fixed lines. The sense of community was simply moving. For all their technological advancements the core value of Japanese society, the social harmony, was still strong. Usually emotions would run high and looting and riots would take place where desperation sets in. This has happened in recent tragedies and turmoils all over the World. But not in the Land of Rising Sun. I couldn’t help but admire my in-laws (my wife is a Japanese) more than ever before for their great courage and the highest sense of civility.
My journalistic instinct was to go to the affected area but back home everyone was worried for me. I was instructed to leave the country with the first flight that I could catch. It was an order I couldn’t refuse. However, the country had almost come to a halt. I spent the time glued to the TV, rescued by my sister in-law and in her house, getting every bit of information that was coming out from Narita Airport. The transport authorities had shut down everything to assess the damages and the safety -and there were no flights in and out of Tokyo. The radiation leak from Fukushima nuclear plant presented another bigger concern.
Finally on 13th March I made it to Narita and boarded a flight bound for Seoul. Life in Tokyo had almost come to normal after two days although the after-shocks and the threat from the Fukushima nuclear plant kept coming. I called up Ogawa, Sakitsu and my sister-in-law, Junko, for taking care of me and sending me home safely. As the flight took off from Narita airport, I bid goodbye, for this time, to this country that had given me so much but that was going through, what Prime Minister Kan described as, the worst crisis since the WW II.
As we climbed higher I looked out of the window and saw the earth moving away and clouds slowly covering my second homeland. A deep sadness engulfed my heart. If there was one positive thing for me out of this incident, I realized how much my friends here and my in-laws cared for me and how much I have become closer to this country. I also realised how unpredictable life could be – even for a nation.
And as the aircraft veered right on its final trajectory towards Seoul, a bright light appeared in the horizon. It was Mount Fuji, beaming with the winter snow still covering its summit. Standing above a blanket of dark cloud that was now covering everything below us. I smiled tearfully at the sight and offered a little prayer. “Yes, Mount Fuji,” I thought, “You are the spirit of this Nation. Rising above all adversities.”
Whatever destruction or despair Mother Nature may have thrown on this Land, suddenly I felt confident that like Fuji san (as the Japanese refer to their favorite mountain) the people here would stand tall, rise above the situation to rebuild their nation and move on. They have done that in the past.They will do it again.
That is the strength of the Land of the Rising Sun.