What is this noise?

btyRadio – Back to the Future III

(In this third and last part, I highlight the need for the society to slow down and reflect – and for the traditional media such as radio, TV, and newspapers to be proactive and not reactive. This article is an elaboration of the talk in Romania)

A story goes that a Rabbit was sleeping under a tree and dreaming of the world ending in front of him. He suddenly woke up, and thought: “What if the world really should collapse? What would become of me?” At that instant, a coconut fell on the ground. On hearing the noise, the Rabbit was like: “The world is really blowing up!” And he jumped up and ran just as fast as he could, without even looking back to see what had made the noise. Two deer saw him running, and called after him, “What are you running so fast for?” “Don’t you know? The earth is all breaking up!” he replied. And on he ran, and the deer followed him when they heard that the earth was all falling apart. They passed a fox, calling out to him that the earth was all breaking up. The fox then ran with them. The fox called to an elephant to come along because the earth was all breaking up. On and on they ran, and all the animals in the forests joined in the running.

The age of Internet has got the world running. We heard a noise and we all started running – and we are still. Nobody is asking what was that noise. Instead, it is speed, speed and speed. Everything at giga bits per second. Faster computers, faster Internet, faster emails and faster cellphones over above the fast cars, fast planes and fast trains that we already have. Even my country Bhutan, in less than a decade, has gone from 2G to 3G to 4G to soon, 5G. But faster to where or faster for what? Nobody knows.

The irony is that the traditional media, such as the radio and the television – the original gatekeepers and messiahs, have joined the bandwagon. So, news need to be put on air as fast as possible – and, at times, with accuracy and objectivity severely compromised. At best, the news item is shallow devoid of any context or background. Newsreaders have to read the news as fast as they can. That’s the trend. There is also no time to sit and watch a full bulletin. Hence, many news channels just flash the headlines without the main story. In-depth research is a passé because what is news in the morning is history by evening.

There is a fundamental question that we need to ask. Why are we running?

What do people do with the ‘extra’ time that they have ‘saved’ from whatever they were doing? Do they pursue something that they love, something that they are passionate about, their hobby such as painting, cooking, music or gardening? Do they spend quality time with friends and family? Do they pursue spiritual practices? We often notice that as we drive home, people don’t let others overtake because they want to get to their destination fast. There is growing impatience and anger. In Bhutan, we are seeing a new phenomenon that was unheard before: road rage. Anyway, what do people do after they get to their destination? Back to the fast life, I guess – or just gossiping – in our case.

edfSecond, the prophets of technocracy have promised that the world would be more connected. Physically I cannot refute the claim. Yes, we are connected to everyone in multiple modes – phones, Facebook, WhatsApp, WeChat, etc. We are even connected from 39,000 feet when I am cruising in a jetliner. However, just as there is a big difference between having information and being informed, there is also a difference between ‘being connected’ and reals connections. It is not very unusual to see these days groups of friends gather for dinner or coffee and, instead of talking to each other, would be on their respective phones or gadgets. Where is the connection?

People are unconsciously driven to be restless, impatient and anxious all the time. What will be the long term impact of such behaviours on the human species?

Last, and the most important. As a teacher one of the most difficult tasks in teaching is to grab the attention and retain them while you are teaching. Scientifically, the average attention span was thought to be fifteen minutes. With the world being pushed to be faster and speed being the new normal, our role has become even harder. The attention span of even adults, I assume, has reduced. In academic conferences we are given just ten minutes to present our paper. Some newspapers have asked me to write opinion pieces under 500 words. It is crazy. The impact is not only in classrooms but also in life where people are unconsciously driven to be restless, impatient and anxious all the time. What will be the long-term impact of such behaviours on the human species? Is anyone even asking that question?

Almost every place on Earth and beyond is connected and yet misunderstandings, war and conflicts continue to terrorize not only those involved directly but also those who have nothing to do with the issue. Similarly, there is so much information out there on everything – public health, for example, and yet the world is sicker than ever. Facts and figures are lying around like leaf litters in the forests while campaigns of disinformation and mal-information are very successful – even in the so-called developed world. According to a survey done by a German scholar, 40% of respondents in Europe said that they fell flat for the fake news while the same study revealed that 60% could not separate myths from simple facts.

More connectivity does not necessarily mean more connections. More information does not mean that we are better informed.

What does all this mean? It means that we need to slow down, reflect before moving forward. More connectivity does not necessarily mean more connections. More information does not mean we are better informed. Speed does not mean that we are getting things done well. We need to ponder on what is happening around us. We need to understand what the noise is all about – and stop running unnecessarily.

As is an individual, so is an organisation. The traditional media such as radio, TV and newspaper need to do some deep introspection and retrospection. They need to ask who they are and what is their fundamental role. Can they allow knee-jerk reactions? Is it to get the news faster or is it to give accurate and objective information? Is it whitewash the society with shallow and superficial shows or is it to enlighten the people with deeper meanings so that they make informed choices and make positive changes? I don’t mean that they should be indifferent. What I am saying is that they take time to respond – be proactive – but not reactive. The traditional media should lead – and not be lead. There is no need for them to play the catch up game.

The traditional media should lead – and not be led. They should be proactive – not reactive.

Niel Postman, writing in Technopoly, suggests that the impact of a technology is known only decades after it is introduced. Hence, it is too early to say that social media is bad. The initial studies are not positive. Narcissism, anxiety and loss of human connection, family and community are some of the initial findings. Hence, it would be wise for the social science to catch up and then the traditional media can decide whether and how to join the race.

The opening story ends with the King of Jungle, the mighty Lion, appearing and ordering for the running to stop. Inquiries and investigation ensue that finally lead to the Rabbit who had assumed that the world was falling apart after hearing a coconut fall behind him. The world was not cracking up. It was just an imagination. It was a simple error of not fact-checking.

Hopefully, one day, we would realise that a faster world is not necessarily better, and that, actually, we haven’t even set a destination as yet. Then what are we running for? To get to where?

What is this noise?

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NB:

(At Centennial Radio 101FM in Bhutan one of the most popular programs in Slow and Easy that plays soft music with some pieces of life quotes. We are starting a Centennial Book Cafe where we will invite listeners to come and relax and have a coffee; to put down their phone and talk to each other; to call their illiterate parents or grandparents back in the village – instead of doing only status updates on social media.)

 

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An additional challenge for teachers – Getting the attention of the students from an already attention-deficit-society

 

The Illusion of Being a Knowledgeable

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Radio – Back to the Future II
(In this second part, I highlight some of the consequences of losing the traditional media such as radio, TV, books and newspapers and storytelling tradition. This article in based on the talk in Romania)

A legend says that 5,000 years ago, the Upper Egypt was ruled by a king known as Thamus. Theuth, an inventor, once sought an audience with the King where he presented his latest discovery: writing. Theuth who also invented a myriad of other things was fully convinced that his latest brainchild would be welcomed, “Here, my Lord, is an accomplishment that will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians,” he submitted to the King. The King, however, was not very impressed and after a long thought, replied,

“Theuth, my paragon of inventors, those who acquire it (writing) will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.”

Does a vast quantity of information necessarily mean knowledge? This is an interesting point – and, nonetheless, relevant even today. The new media technology lays in front of us so much information at a click of a mouse – or on our mobile phone – anywhere anytime. At no point in time in human history has so much materials been available so easily. However, does that make us more informed? More knowledgeable? Or wiser? Well, it is more plausible what King Thamus had predicted 5,000 years back. And that people would think of themselves as “very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant”. Let me elaborate.

One problem with too much information is the overload that does not allow a reader to sieve ‘good’ and relevant information from the junk. This is the reason why fake news thrive. We are no more selective of important facts from the less important ones. We cannot judge between the good and the bad, relevant from the irrelevant or right from the wrong. Many urban teenagers in Bhutan can name every member of any K-Pop group but wouldn’t be able to say who the first three desis (governors) of Bhutan were – or in the contemporary parlance, to name all the members of the Cabinet. Still, if we  want to stick to K-Pop, do we know that the K-wave is subsidised by the government to exert their soft power politically and globally and that it is also is used as a PR cart to sell Korean products in the ever-competitive world market?

Not only that there is information overdrive these days, one is also subjected to the illusion of being widely informed and knowledgeable. Today as one scrolls the timeline of the FaceBook page or Twitter, one is fed with news and information from across the globe on variety of subjects; from the latest resolution in the UN Security Council to a dog being trapped in a well in remote India; from new scientific discoveries, whether true of not, to ancient Ayurvedic treatment for cancer, which the world had supposedly forgotten. Everyone knows who won the US election, that the Brits are leaving the European Union and that Kim Jong Un is testing nuclear weapons.

There is a difference between having information and being informed, though. Having information is nothing if one does not know the context or the prevailing circumstances. Information is like a raw material. You need more ingredients and some craftsmanship to turn it into a final product – to make a judgement or an assessment. Conversely, if you base your decision on a piece or on fragmented pieces of information it is likely to be dangerous. This is what is happening every day around the world these days. Character assassinations, campaigns of disinformation and fake news are having a field day. In one of the best sessions at the conference in Romania, researchers had presented some early study of how fake news and the illusion of being informed altered the voting pattern in one of the most “developed” nations on Earth.

All these bring us to the issue of substance, accuracy and credibility, which the new media such as Twitter and Facebook is short of. You can’t make a judgment on the Palestinian-Israeli issue in 140 characters or shoot down Aung San Suu Kyi’s persona or her Nobel Prize based on one Facebook post or picture. Therefore, the good ole media such as the radio, TV, books and newspaper and our own storytelling tradition will continue to, and should, play an important role to maintain a good level of public discourse. Of all places on Earth, the US of A has realised this after the 2016 Presidential elections. New York Times and Washington Post have seen increased sales and subscriptions in 2017.

One can’t say for sure where a well-informed society would take us but a shallow one, which we are fast becoming, can deliver the deadliest of consequences for mankind and nations. And it’s not me saying this. Someone called Siddharta Gautama based his teachings, some 2,500 years ago, on the need to alleviate ignorance, which at the very best, as Thamus had put, would be “a burden to the society” and to the world.

(In the next entry I will elaborate on my experience that I presented at the conference)

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Hotel Casino – the venue of the PBI conference

Radio – Back to the future

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Delegates from All India Radio and BBC

I have been flown half way round the World for a conference in a resort town of Sinaia in Romania – where I have been asked to share my views on the future of radio in the age and world of social media. The session I was placed was titled: Social Media – Destructive or Constructive? Here is what I shared there.

Firstly, to provide some background, the traditional mass media, such as radio, television and newspapers have seen dwindling revenues and audience with the rise of the social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The situation has worsened to the that even big names in the newspaper and broadcasting are either closing or struggling financially. Not a day passes without a conference being held somewhere around the globe – where the future of the mass media is being discussed. At no point in the history of modern media that such an existential crisis has hit the sector.

Back to the future?
I don’t know about the newspapers but as far as radio and television are concerned they will survive. Among the two, interestingly, radio is the stronger medium and the most resilient among all forms of media that mankind has invented. While television is powerful, glamourous, captivating and bring the world in front of our eyes, in terms of resilience, I would put my bet on the radio. There is one consumption pattern of radio that no other forms can compete with – passive listening. In other words, radio can be played in the background while one drives or works. It does not take, or need, our full attention nor is it so intrusive like the new forms of media.

The imminent death of radio is a familiar narrative that has been heard before.

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Most of the experts and practitioners shared their experiences of dealing with the social media

It was foretold many times in the past. When television was invented in the forties, the catchphrase was that the ‘video killed the radio star’, which also became a pop song. But radio survived. When Walkman was developed in the seventies there was another round of dooms-day prediction for radio. It survived again. The third time was a quite recent – when IPod came into being. In sociology parlance, radio has been the Bobo doll among the media technologies. Every time it was punched, it fell but bounced back – smiling and fully reinvigorated. Radio will be there and will, before we realise, reinvent itself again.

Passive consumption

There is one strength of radio that no other news medium can boast of: passive consumption. In other words, while TV and other social media require your eyes and your ears, radio just requires your auditory senses. So, one can go about with one’s work and listen to the radio. You could also blast it as you drive. This makes radio a very popular medium and perhaps the strength that has saved it from the foretold death in the past. There is no doubt that with the onslaught of the social media, radio will survive because of this strength.

No over-reacting

How the radio should respond and how it is responding have been extensively covered in the works of several practitioners and professionals in the field. What I would like to suggest is what radio should avoid – over-reacting. Every time the radio is given for dead, the radio responds. Understandably. However, one of the most bizarre ways goes to some years back when the radio felt it should become ‘trendy’. So besides the RDS data services there was a great deal of talks on what they called visual radio, where pictures could be added to ‘enhance’ the services. Many seminars and conferences later, someone asked a simple question: isn’t radio with pictures known as television?

One tag line at the conference in Romania was that “the only certainty was uncertainty”. Agreed. And as in life, the best way for the radio to face the uncertain future is to be itself – and not to lose its essence as a powerful aural medium.

(In my next article, I will elaborate the strengths of the TV and radio, which the social media has yet to prove: accuracy, depth and credibility.)

 

 

Je Khenpo – the Purest of the Pure

The floors of the holy chambers of Tashichho Dzong were shiny and slippery and so I took an extra care not to put up a faux pas in front of His Holiness the 70th Je Khenpo (the supreme abbot of Bhutan). The year was 1997. I had just turned thirty, built a house and was still with my Italian mindset and manners – meaning, I was exhibiting some deficit with the traditional driglam namzha – the Code for Official and Social Etiquettes of Bhutan. I was aware of my shortcoming and that made me even more nervous in the presence of such an illustrious figure. I prostrated three times, stretched out my offering of a simple white silk scarf (aka khadha in Bhutanese) to the chief attendant, prostrated three times again, after which I was signalled me to sit down. I lowered myself – paying attention not to get entangled with my kabney (ceremonial scarf), which happens all the time, crossed my legs and sat down. All the while, His Holiness was smiling broadly and pitifully at me – perhaps amused by my long hair, very undriglam namzha ways or an overly self-conscious face.

“So, what brings you here?” he asked me in his signature deep and gentle voice that I had heard before in large public prayer gatherings. I felt relieved, composed myself and submitted my request, “I would like you to come and bless my newly-built house”. He nodded and went, “ummm….. Now, how do we go about this?” The chief attendant was taken aback by my unusual and inadmissible request. I had not known His Holiness personally before that and, having spent a good part of my twenties in Italy as a student, my knowledge of State protocols was next to nil. I had only seed him once in person, the year before, and received his blessing when he administered the oath of allegiance for senior civil servants. I was one among few hundreds that day. On that occasion, I felt something very unusual in his presence – a feeling of remorse, pride, sadness, joy and bliss – all at the same time. I was explained much later by another Buddhist master that ‘sinners’ like me are remorseful in the presence of great Beings – in that my soul was seeking penitence. I bought his explanation. So, when I had finished building my house I was determined to get him to bless it.

As we sat in silence, another attendant waded in to the room carrying a tray. “Have some tea first,” His Holiness uttered to me and then he called his chief attendant and whispered something in his ears. I grabbed the tea cup by the handle and slowly raised it and took a sip – making sure that the cup didn’t slide away from the saucer. “What do you do? He asked me next. I explained that I was an engineer in the BBS. He smiled. He went on to ask few more questions on my family, where I was born and my education. Meanwhile, the chief attendant came in with a scarf and something small wrapped in a dresho paper.

“You see,” he said, looking down at the items – and blessing them, “I would have agreed to your request but our internal policy bars me from doing that.” I accepted his rejection – not with a disappointment but feeling rather foolish at even advancing such a request. I was either naive or idealistic – or both, to expect the highest lama of the land to come and consecrate a private house. “Nevertheless,” he continued, “tomorrow at 3 pm, I suppose you will be doing a day-long ceremony, please tell the lama to throw these rice and the khadha in the air. Exactly at 3pm, OK?” “Las, la” I replied. I got up and received his gifts and at the same time the chief attendant signalled me to leave. I paid my due respects and waded my feet towards the door. When I got home I gave the khada and the rice to the lama who was preparing for the next day.

The following day was one of the most hectic days in my life. I was trying to keep tab of every aspect of the ceremony – between feeding the monks and guests to supplying the kitchen and the altar – to showing the way to toilets. Many friends and family members had come to the consecration. With all the mess going around me I was called outside for a photo session to mark the day. The photographer, a visiting Japanese-American friend from New York, clicked few shots before he pointed to the sky behind us. It was afternoon and the Sun had a beautiful ring around it – like a circular rainbow. Everyone was wowed. It wasn’t even raining. We didn’t have smartphones back then to capture the scene. But all the guests witnessed the strange phenomenon including my American friend. I then suddenly remembered the instruction from His Holiness. I looked at my watch. It was 3 pm.

Ever since that experience, I have a total reverence for His Holiness – our Je Khenpo. He restored in me the wonderful world of magic and miracles that I had almost forgotten as I took up engineering, quantum mechanics and technology back at the university. Now, whenever or wherever I come across him – or even see him pass by in his car, I always prostate into submission. I feel blessed and blissful. For a moment, he takes me to another realm. To me, he is a living Buddha. The real Rimpoche (the Precious One). The Purest of the Pure.

On the occasion of his 63rd Birthday anniversary, today, I can only pray that he live a very long life and continue to provide the spiritual strength to our magical Kingdom.

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Thimphu Traffic? We saw it coming

Thirty years back, in 1986, I started working for the Radio NYAB (the predecessor to the Bhutan Broadcasting Service) as a young junior engineer. One of my responsibilities was to operate the sound system at the Royal Banquet Hall where almost every important government meetings, workshops and seminars were held. One such meeting was called by the erstwhile National Urban Development Corporation on the Royal Command of His Majesty the King to discuss the city plan for, and the growing traffic in, Thimphu City. All our leaders of today were there as young directors, under-secretaries and deputy ministers. NUDC was chaired by the late Foreign Minister, Lyonpo Dawa Tsering. Dasho Lhatu Wangchuk was the Secretary. The meeting was steered by late Dasho Lam Penjore, the Deputy Minister of Planning Commission – assisted by a very soft-spoken Director of Planning, Ugyen Tshering (who retired as foreign minister, Lyonpo Ugyen Tshering).

During the meeting, briefly graced by His Majesty the King, the issue of the growing traffic came up. One attendee (I think it was lyonpo Om Pradhan who was the Deputy Minister for Trade then) pointed out that the main issue to be tackled was the Chubachu junction that posed a bottleneck as majority of traffic users moved to Tashichho Dzong in the morning and then away from it in the evening. Many more ideas and feedbacks were floated in that meeting, which were all excellent. I don’t remember exactly what His Majesty commanded but I remember along the lines of not making the mistakes of other countries, to maintain adequate offset between the houses, etc.

Thirty-one years on, and my last visit home, few weeks back, I was stuck in my car for over thirty minutes to go from my house in Kawajangsa to the centre of the city. It would have taken 15 if I had walked. The Chubachu junction, which was causing the bottleneck, was still there taking around twenty minutes to clear me and my old car. As I moved inch by inch, literally, I couldn’t help but think about that meeting – and about how we Bhutanese never learn from, or listen to, our King.

Countries and nations fail because of bad or no leadership. That’s unfortunate. We are failing despite having a great one. The traffic problem, which has now become a chronic issue, is just one of the many thing we could have avoided if we had just listened to our King. Just until 20 years back Thimphu was a blank slate on which we could have drawn a beautiful artwork. We had 30 years to address this issue.

Maybe it is late. Or maybe, it isn’t.

 

Remembering the state visit 2011

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.

What it means to be a teacher

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.

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The classroom assigned to us was cold and damp

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.

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Kids don’t learn from people they hate

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.

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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. 1655174_10154514251320153_7026111217836876437_o 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”.

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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?

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Way to Om Bha Nye (Tashi Yangste) – Learn to look out for each other. On that trip one girl fell sick. The boys took turns to carry her till the road point.
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FinalCut Pro and Adobe Audition were not in the curriculum. Those are the only things some found useful when they enter the job market.
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Teacher, in this day and age, should lead, guide and inspire – not teach
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Learning outside the campus and books. Learn about your culture and who you are as nation
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Make the best of what is there. Enjoy and teach students to be present.
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We never forgot to feed ourselves and feed others
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We even made it Nepal for pilgrimage
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We went camping to Bumdelling and pilgrimage to Rigsum Goenpa
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We packed ourselves and got thrown like cement bags. We cherish them all.
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Kanglung – Students never reported on time for field trips. But who is rush? Taking notes

Diabetes and hypertension in Bhutan

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.

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Blackened pots are rare sight in Bhutan now

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.

  1. Rice cooker

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.

  1. Doma

7tv6si2wjhseWhat 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.

  1. 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.

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I eat so little rice and my host said, “That’s like the amount we offer to deities”.
  1. 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.
  2. Be careful with salt. Salt is cheap and
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    Japanese meal. Notice the rice portions and compare this with above picture

    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).

  3. 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)

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Rice is not even eco-friendly – requiring lots of water to grow.

 

Memories of Bangladesh

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.

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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.

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The boat ride along the Buriganga river – courtesy of the Bangladesh Navy

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.

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I sneaked out of the hotel to take this picture. Few guys came and shook my hands

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)

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All I can remember from this State Dinner was sitting next to a Bangladeshi Minister and joking about bartering our water and their cooking gas at the rate of 1=1. When the dinner ended I got left behind by the convoy, as I was hounded by the Bangladeshi media. It took me 3 hours to get back to the hotel. When we came it was just 20 minute. Dhaka traffic.
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In front of the Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel (where HM stayed) that gave me free espresso every morning.
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The State Visit had to compete for space in the media with an unlikely rival – 2011 Cricket World Cup that was co-hosted by India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. So as usual I had to do my endless rounds of telephone calls to the editors, confirm the reporters, write press releases, do news clippings etc. However, compared to State Visits to India, this was a piece of cake.
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Didn’t trust the tap water. Sorry, I am too western, for my own good.
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The Bangladesh Navy had planned to fly us to the Sundarbans and boat us around. When that didn’t happen, they ferried us up and down the Buriganga with great sea food and cultural show. That evening the Admiral of the Bangladesh Navy was seated by my side at the Official Dinner where I thanked him. “Oh, that’s nothing. If His Majesty had come to Sundarbans, he would have really liked it.”
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Bangladesh is World No.1 in decommissioning large ships and vessels. Hundreds of shipyards can be seen along all the Meghna River

 

 

Distancing the education?

Distance education does not necessarily mean bad education – at least, not in this day and age when you have even Harvard and Oxford offering courses on the MOOC (massive online open courses).

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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.

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My first certificate from the Netherlands

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.

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My first certificate from the prestigious University of London
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It would cost more than double if you study in Arizona State campus