So I have just crossed two of the four hurdles towards my next doctoral degree. I have completed all the course work (the last one was very demanding) and cleared the much-dreaded Qualifying Exam.
Now what is a qualifying exam? In different countries it comes with different names, shapes, sizes and formats. In the US and Canada it is called Comprehensive Exam, in other countries it is referred to as General Exams or Preliminary Exams. It consist of a long written part spanning for few days followed by an oral defence where you respond to the committee of 3-4 professors. You have only two shots. If you fail once, you can take another one. And that’s it. The objective is to test your overall knowledge in the field you will be getting your PhD and also see if you are deemed fit to be called a scholar. It is not simply a test of the cumulative knowledge of the courses you have taken (I took six) but a test of your preparation to work independently at the highest level hereafter. In other words, it is a rite of passage from being a student till now – to a distinguished title or status of being referred to as scholar, doctor, etc. Simply put, as a student you absorb knowledge. As a scholar you produce knowledge. Big difference. The next step is for you to produce something new in the form of a dissertation, which, if accepted, confers you the title of doctor. Doctor comes from Latin word, docere, which means “to teach”. In other words, after your knowledge is accepted by the discipline, you are also entitled to teach it to others. This practice has its roots in Italy that saw some of the first universities in the western world (e.g. my Alma mater, University of Bologna). Now, of course, titles of PhD and doctors have changed in their meaning and purpose.
To come back to my experience of this Q exam, it’s been few months of consuming lots of coffees, kit kats, communication theories, research methodologies and selected works from philosophy, religion, sociology, history, anthropology, sociolinguistics, semiotics and technology. Communication cuts across many fields and take almost all the theories from sociology. The written exam was a solitary confinement for 3 days in a row (you can also choose to spread it over a month but I like getting done away with) – each lasting 8 hours to finally produce some 12,000+ word length of what could be the last humanly readable paper. After this, no one will understand what you write. 👿👿👿
Then the oral part was a 3-hour slash-and-burn farming on my ideas 😂😂😂.
Now that I am done with it, how do I feel? I don’t know. Have I learnt anything? A lot. Do I feel wiser? Not at all. In fact, now I feel less confident (or may be more humble) than before I started. I was sharing this feeling with another Bhutanese friend who is also in a PhD programme. He is going through the same kind of transformation. Basically, PhD is a process where you finally know how much you don’t know – and that is really a humbling dose. And perhap the greatest lesson one learns in a grad school.
So then, is one of the ultimate objectives of knowledge to make you more humble? Perhaps. When I look around and imagine some of the most learnt Bhutanese I have come across – people like my family lama – Rangshikhar Rimpoche, my lama-friend – Eminence Tsugla Lopen (I say “friend” because I am spiritually not at the level to be his disciple), our historian, Dr. Karma Phuntsho and then my last employer, RTC President Thakur Singh, they are all very humble people. In fact, in Bhutanese we say “behaving like someone has no knowledge” if your acts are rowdy and uncultured. Maybe there is a wisdom to that.
I guess, ultimately
Knowledge makes you humble. Ignorance inflates your ego.
Coming back to the Q Exam, I am sharing my experience not to scare anyone but to show how the system works. PhD is absolutely doable. I hope our universities back home will offer because it leads you to another world of knowledge, discovery and perspectives of life. You should go for it – especially if you are a teacher – in a school or in a university. But don’t go for it, looking forward to a fancy title and the world to bow down to you after you complete it (see the cartoon below). You should go for it because learning excites you, it makes you really happy and you can leave behind some knowledge for mankind. If I can, so will you. I am not even doing it in what I studied in undergrad (engineering) or my career (film and journalism). Those subjects would have been too easy. As is of me, I chose the red pill and I am looking broadly at communication as a tool in sociolinguistics and philosophy. These are challenging concepts but very exciting.
As I wrote in my earlier blog entry, you should keep learning because if you stop learning, you stop living.
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 seeking refuge 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 percentage. And thereby creating hierarchy – a caste system – in a country that is already so ridiculously hierarchal. By doing that we are 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 and careers – 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?
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.
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.
In light of the current discussion (or re-discussion) on education – or reforms, curriculum overhauls, needs assessments, blueprints, master plans, parliamentary reviews – or whatever you may call it, here are my thoughts on the topic – having been deep in this field for a couple of years now.
Know thy needs well– Do we really know what we need? Or at least what we want? One of the experiences from my travels is that when I don’t know what I need, I tend to over pack. It happened many times. You don’t know what you need. So fear overtakes you. Instead, when I came to Macau, although I was coming for an extended stay, I just had one medium-size
suitcase with a 20-piece clothing. It is because I have been here before and I knew what I needed. My serious doubt with our education system is that we really don’t know what we want – let alone know what we need. So we are over packing our curriculum with things that we may never use or with things that someone told us were necessary. It is better to teach less, and teach well, than to pump in contents and concepts that students will never grasp (which is actually the case) or would ever use. One visiting British maths teacher once told me, after going through our Class 9 text books, that she taught those stuff in Class XI in UK. Are we trying to beat the British?
We saw NAPE being discarded, Shakespeare being thrown out – and then reinstated, REC being pushed around, CAPSS being transferred, relocated and renamed – and all the while trying to figure out if multi-grade classrooms were good or bad.
Motivating the teachers – Many talks and discussions on education end up, as a cliché goes, as old wine in new bottle. Over the years we have seen master
plans being developed, policies being framed and reframed, curriculum overhauls being done, studies being conducted, surveys being carried out, blue prints being initiated. So much so that now there are no terminologies left to title any new initiatives or documents. However, all along we have also refused to take the bull by the horn – teachers’ motivation and quality. As long as teachers are treated at par with 9-to-5 civil servants, everyone will opt for the 9-to-5 life. And the longer we stay in that state of denial, the longer the top performers will continue to shy away from the noble profession – and nothing much will improve in our education system. We might get some temporary sparks but not long term solutions because whatever visions we have, plans we pursue or dreams we would like to achieve, ultimately it is the teachers who have to deliver the knowledge to students. A simple logic says good curriculum taught by bad or demotivated teachers will result in bad students. But a bad curriculum if given to a good teacher might produced good students. Ideally we should have an equation of good curriculum and good teachers.
How to motivate the teachers? We could we start by building teachers’ quarters and by providing higher financial incentives – instead of erecting ceremonial gates and walls. His Majesty the Fourth King, whom we all boast as role model but only a few emulate, used to provide technical allowance to engineers (I was one) and one grade higher in civil service to doctors to entice Bhutanese students to take up these challenging professions. So all the toppers of my generation opted for medicines or engineering. Why is it so difficult to copy-paste that policy on the teaching profession, if getting good teachers is a challenge?
Nothing wrong with our students – We, Bhutanese (my generation especially), think very low of our young people. We either underestimate them or suppress them – or both. We making sweeping statements like, ‘our children are spoilt’, ‘boys are criminals’, ‘girls are irresponsible’ and above all, students are dumb. They don’t know anything. Well, having moved from Sherubtse to Royal Thimphu College to University of Macau (that has top students from mainland China and many international students), I must proudly say that
Bhutanese students are, by any measure, no less. I have read, assessed and graded test papers and assignments here and back home. I feel proud of what I actually used to read – especially in Sherubtse. An expatriate colleague who now works in the American University in UAE confirms this too. Given the right conditions our students can perform at par with anyone – and will make our country proud and a better place. In fact, one Australian diplomat once told me (and this was also echoed by a Dutch professor) that they were very happy with Bhutanese whom they considered as top performers, hardworking, rarely creating problems and heading home when they are done with their studies.
Lifelong learning requires one to develop the joy of learning itself. I am trying to think of how I cultivated it. Was I immersed in books as a child? No. I was in a vocational school run by Catholics priests of the Selesian order of Don Bosco. And during the long summer holidays I had to look after cows, chase monkeys and fetch water. Did those priests have a spell on me? No. I was a little devil who was fond of Clint Eastwood, Dharmendra and Bruce Lee. Meaning I often bunked classes and sneaked in and out of the boarding school to visit Norgay cinema. Do I have my parent’s influence? No. Both of them were illiterate. So then how?
I think there are two explanations – My student life in Italy and Learning by Heart.
Italian education – I got my first degree in Italy (Bologna). I did engineering – majoring in microelectronics. In Italy, there is no such thing as rote learning. Meaning you don’t have to reproduce ad verbatim what you have been taught. The exam system is lot tougher. It is based on the open-book concept. So everything has to be understood well because you are tested for full comprehension and application of the subject or the topic. You have to go beyond the lecture notes and text books. You have to consult tons and ton of other materials. Library was my “favourite” place. When you do that you are inevitably exposed to many things and you develop the habit of knowledge acquisition and a taste for it. Grazie, Italia!
Learning by Heart – Everyone is familiar with this term by heart, which actually means memorising. Memorising requires an organ called brain and not the other organ – heart. So then why do we say “by heart” when it should be “by brain”. Then, how did this phrase come about? Well here is what I have found out and the connection to my own anecdotal evidence.
Memorising requires you to remember things. The latin word for remember is recor, which is made up of two words: re – recollect, and cor – heart; recollect from the heart. Recollect from the heart? Yes. The genesis of this word takes us to the Romans and Greeks who thought that the heart was the seat of intelligence and memory, as well as emotion. And hence the phrase – learn “by heart”. Now one may asks, “were they wrong?” They can’t be. Let me attempt to break it down for you.
To have a heart means you have emotions, empathy, passion etc. I am not saying that if you have them you are a great learner. Just as we can’t say that every person with a big lung can win the Olympic marathon. But you need a big lung to be a long-distance runner. So a good heart is a great starting point because, as I was saying, it makes you empathetic and passionate by nature. In being so, you develop another subliminal quality – open-mindedness, simply because you have an open heart. A cruel person is often very narrow-minded, right? As an open-minded (read as open-hearted) person you do not discriminate people but you will instead embrace all of them. You will not be biased or prejudiced in your thinking. You will find a value in every person that you meet. You learn from everything, every time and just just everybody. You soon develop the so-called joy of learning.
At Yale University in the US, which I have had the fortune of visiting thanks to two good friends who work there, they have developed what they call emotional intelligence. Scientists there have found out that if you learn using your heart you learn more and your rate of success is better. Learning by heart, thus, has not been wrong all along. Except that it was WE who didn’t get it right. Just “memorising” per se has no use as Einstein once famously said, “I don’t remember things that I can find elsewhere”. He was derided by a student for not remembering the speed of sound.
To conclude, I think I developed the joy of learning by learning “by heart”. By developing my passion, being passionate and practicing empathy. Lifelong learning has procured me vast amount of knowledge, exposure, friendships, goodwill and opportunities. It has become a way of life. The open-mindedness in me has allowed me to seamlessly move from microelectronics to media to moviemaking to mass communication studies.
It is the Academic Writing class and we are going through a journal article by an American woman who taught English in Shanxi province in the 80s. “The provincial capital is Xian, right? Which was also the capital of a medieval Chinese empire,” I offer my comment to the class. My knowledge of China is quite limited and also superficial. “Not that Shanxi. Another one,” my professor replies. “Oh! There are two Shanxis in China?” The class (just three of us) laughs at my latest realisation. Jay offers to explain the difference between the two Shanxis. “This is Shanxi, pronounced as Shaan Xi, meaning “Land west of Shan mountain”,” Jay writes in Chinese characters and also the romanised version. “Then why couldn’t we call “East” of Shan Mountain the other Shanxi?” I propose with the inquisitiveness of a child and refusing to admit defeat. “Oh, east of Shan is Shan Dong, another province, Dong means East. This is where Jojo comes from,” Jay continues. I burst out laughing again. Amused by own stupidity.
Ok. To summarise: there are two provinces with same name (but romanised as Shanxi (west of Mountains) and Shaanxi with double a, which means Land west of Shan for the benefit of sentient beings like me who cannot read Chinese). There is slight variation in how they are pronounced but to an untrained ear they are both identical. Obviously, they are totally different when written in Chinese characters. The writing system is not alphabet-based (meaning phonetic) but pictorial and ideographic representations.
The class continues. The topic for today is contrastive rhetoric – the difference between Anglophone and Chinese academic writing styles. A paragraph, in particular, from the journal article catches my eyes:
All Chinese know the standard procedures of Chinese courtesy:
"This food is not very good, we are not good cooks, you must eat
more." "This is Chinese candy, Chinese candy is terrible, this
is especially terrible Chinese candy, you must have some."
Certainly, all language-users rely upon idioms, clichés, and
set phrases, but the Chinese seem always to rely upon them...
My face brightened as I noted the astonishing similarity to my own culture. If I just execute the “Find” and “Replace” function on my Word document of just one pronoun, it will be a valid description of popular courtesies we followed back home. I just translated them in my head in my native language and they fitted word by word. I smiled even more.
This is what I like about learning. A discovery such as this. First of all, in a place that is so far that I didn’t even know the existence of two similarly named provinces and yet to find out a similar tradition of basic social norms as mine.
It just reinforced my confidence in my own culture.
NB – “This food is not very good, we are not good cooks, you must eat more” are widely said in Dzongkha as Zhego tshuebchi ga nay ya bay matshub. Zhay may la and in Sharchopkha as Toh tshutpa thur hangraang drangmay may la. Zhey na la.
Going back to school is fun. You get to relive your life – the so-called “golden” student life all over again. However, it becomes more difficult as you age because you have to cope up (and sometimes put up) with other realities. In this article I will lay down some key issues and skills and chills of going back to college.
Zeal For Learning
First and foremost, you got to have a genuine zeal for learning. You have to look at yourself and ask, “Do I really enjoy learning? Or was learning just a part of an ambition that I pursued?” You need to answer
these carefully because if you have made learning a MEANS and not an END in itself, you will suffer. Learning itself should be the end goal and not something that you do expecting a better job, career, money or fame. I am not saying that this is wrong. But this is something you do when you are much younger – when you are, as the Italians say, in your primavera (spring season).
READ? You. Can. Kill. Me. Instead
We (especially Bhutanese) don’t like to read. Not even something that we sign on. It is a national disease. We would rather be killed than be asked to read, for example, Bill Clinton’s 1008-page autobiography, My Life. I am not a voracious reader but I would easily pass the national average. Post grad studies requires you to read, read and read. In communications studies we are made to read even more – and on a variety of subjects – philosophy, anthropology, sociology, psychology, mass media, religion, history, politics, economy, current affairs, public relations and many more. If reading is your nightmare, don’t even attempt the post grad dream. But if you DO read, you are already a step closer.
Shed off your ego
Ego is in our blood. I wish it showed up in our complete blood count (CBC) reports so that with another prick of a needle we can bring our ego level down just like we do with blood pressure. You should HAVE pride – but not ego. Pride gives us dignity. Ego destroys them. Now going back to school, can you rub shoulders with people half your age? Share a room in a dormitory? Get lectured by people younger than you? Seek help from anyone from a janitor to a gardener? Admit that you can’t even use your own mobile phone? Can you be, suddenly, nobody all over again in a strange place?
Simple Living High Thinking
The increased income level in Bhutan in recent years has made us more materialistic than ever. I am amazed to see how much we pile up with stuff that we actually don’t need. In 2013 after I lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Sherubtse for a semester I decided to scale down my life. I realised I could live more with less. When I got back to Thimphu I started sieving through my wardrobe. And out came things that I never wore and didn’t even remember buying them. I returned to Kanglung for two more semesters – with 3 suitcases of cloths and 2 cartoons of old shoes that I gave away. I also gave away both my silk gho to my younger brother.
Going back to school means you have to detach yourself from that materialistic lifestyle. And adjust in a modest one-room flat after living in a house (in my case, in a villa). Can you do that? Do not romanticise these things? It is not fun after the second day. There is absolutely no private space. You have to line up for food instead of being served at the table. You have to do your laundry, clean your room, wash the toilet and scrub the basins. And if your roommate doesn’t care it is even worse. But living a simple life, you have more time for yourself, time to read, moments to reflect and time to pause – especially for someone like me who has been running since I graduated some 21 years back.
New place Strange Place
Being in a new place is nice but NOT if you have decided that it will be your home for the next 3 years. You are not on a paid-holiday or a romantic honeymoon but for a more serious stuff in a strange land for an extended period. You have to make yourself at home – and quickly. Of course, there are services and supports centres. But unfamiliar surroundings can be dreadful. No friends to support you. No family members to rely on.
And in my case no compatriots to even seek help. I am the only Bhutanese in this mini-country (Macau is a SAR of China and administered independently like Hong Kong). What happens if you have a medical emergency? Or if your money runs out faster than you had planned? What if you lose your passport? Or if you cannot catch up with the rest of the class? And fall behind with assignments? And like in my case what if you have just two classmates whom you don’t even meet? Yes, you could be lonely. Being away from your family, friends, comfort zone could be terrible. The social, cultural, physical and mental challenges are big. If you are not up to it, you will collapse.
Now having given you all the “bad” news here, from my next blog entries, you will only have the best of being back to school, I promise. I will also share about how YOU can also do whatever you want to do when you grow older (which everybody will). A sneak preview to that: at the core of everything you do or you want to do in life is your health. Take a good care of it.
My friend, Ugyen Tshering (former Paro NC member), used to tell me, “Stay fit. Your chance of your lifetime may come when you hit sixty.” I followed his advice.
“Ladies and gentleman, as we will be landing shortly, please fasten your seat belts, stow your tray table and put your seat in upright position. The temperature in Hong Kong is…..”.
The in-flight announcement wakes me up from my short nap. I am on Cathy Pacific flight from Bangkok en route to Macau in China. The flight was early and so I had dozed off after we took off from Suvarnabhumi Airport.
I open the window and look out. We are descending down the towering chunks of thick clouds over the South China Sea. Intermittently I get glimpses of some little spots down below that are actually large ships floating in the vast ocean. Few minutes later the aircraft descends below the cloud line and I get a better view. More ships in the sea and in the distance I see some coastline mountains that I presume is Mainland China.
The landing is smooth. The aircraft taxis to an apron. I buckle off and I go for my carry-on luggage and we slowly baby-step along the aisle. I am behind an Indian businessman who is already talking (read as shouting) on the phone. The air hostess at the exit door bids me goodbye in Japanese. I am always mistaken for my wife’s nationality.
I hit the main terminal building. As I walk I look out. The Boeing 777 that I was on is now getting refuelled and checked while bags and suitcases file out from the bottom side door on to a conveyor belt. “Welcome to Hong Kong,” I say to myself, “and now get to the ferry terminal for Macau – as fast as you can.” Hong Kong Airport is the only airport that I have been to where one could get off from a plane and get on to a boat. There are regular services to Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Guangzhou on the Mainland and to Macau, which is a Special Administrative Region of China – under the Chinese government’s One-Country-Two-System arrangement.
Three hours and hot noodle lunch later I am on a large speedboat docking off and slowly heading for the open sea. Above us, an Airbus 380 bearing the Emirates logo is slowly approaching the runway with its landing gear down.
Thankfully the sea is calm today and the much-dreaded motion sickness that I occasionally suffer from does not show up. And after undulating for an hour I see Macau’s iconic tower in the horizon and slowly the whole city comes into the view. Macau is a small island on the Pearl River delta bordering with Zhuhai city in Guangdong province. It was a Portuguese colony till 1999.
The Immigration officer takes my passport and asks me how long I was staying this time. Apparently he has records of my 3 previous visits. “Very long,” I tell him, “I am starting off my PhD at the University of Macau.” I reply as I wave at him the acceptance letter from the university. He gives a lukewarm endorsement but no further questions. My passport is stamped. I am admitted to stay for 60 days within which I have to renew my visa after the admission procedures at the university are completed. A 30-minute ride in a taxi passing by some of the world’s largest gambling hotels gets me to the new campus of the university. My professor had arranged another PhD student, Marilyn from China, to assist me with the check-in formalities at the Post Graduate Housing.
But the reception has some problem getting me a roommate – probably because of my age and so Marilyn takes me out for dinner while they sort things out. When we are back to the office again, I am asked to follow a staff to my room on the 4th floor. I am introduced to my roommate – another PhD student from China, Mo Dazie – who is just 28.
As I check my room I find that my bed has a mattress but no pillow, blanket or bed sheet. “Where can I buy them?” I ask my new-found friend. “Come,” Mo says. We get along almost instantly. I follow him and we head out to a large store inside the campus. The campus is busy with students and professors moving in all directions. I look around, take a deep breath and smile, “So I am really back to college. I can’t believe it,” I tell myself.
“How old are you?” Mo breaks my thoughts. “49,” I reply. “49? Why you study?” Mo is rather dazzled. “I have been also asking myself. I don’t know,” I joke. We have a good laugh.
After getting my bed ready, I brush my teeth, wash my face and I crash. I don’t have the energy to even open my suitcase. It’s been a long day. As the world dims on me, I ask myself again, “What am I doing here? Why do I need to study?”
But I am too tired to ponder on these serious questions.