Knowledge of humility

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.

With my supervisor, Prof. Todd Sandel

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.


Sharchop ngew culture

In January of 2015, I took my family for a road trip across Bhutan – from Thimphu in the West to my native Tashigang in the East. The journey was “historic” for my two daughters, who were 17 and 12. They had never been to that region before. As we crossed the midpoint – the town of Bumthang in Central Bhutan, and entered into the eastern half of the country, I stopped the car frequently to greet my relatives.

My maternal relatives are the simplest and the most genuine people on Earth. Truly humbling to be with them.

My cousins, nieces, nephews and even distant uncles and aunts presented themselves in droves – and invited us to their houses. “I am your cousin,” a distant niece told my daughters. “Your father and my mother are khotkin-mathang (cross cousins)”. My daughters were amused. My wife just smiled. She has been through that before – during our first visit in 1992.

“Your father and I are like siblings because we are aata and uusa (parallel cousins),” said another. Then one of my aunts went, “You look so much like your abee (grandmother),” she told my younger daughter and gave a big bear hug as tears rolled down her cheek. “You should have known your grandmother. We are cousins but more like sisters. I really miss her. I think you are her reincarnation,” she added. “Promise me that you will come to meet your abee (grand aunt) again.”

Wherever we went we were greeted with genuine excitements and hospitality. In Tongling it was as if 3 days were declared as holiday. No one went to work. They all came to see us – bearing simple and honest gifts of eggs, maize, ara, tengma, butter tea, etc. There was so much laughter, tears of joy, memories of my late mother and that of grandfather whom they said I personified in every respect. We sang, danced, ate, drank and cherished the moments that were so beautiful that no amount of money can even dream of buying.

My daughters with ajang Kinga, who is my father’s father’s sister’s son. He hosted us in Tashigang

Perhaps more than any of Bhutan’s nineteen ethnic groups, the Tshanglas (also known as Sharchop in Dzongkha, the national language) of Eastern Bhutan celebrate large family networks. In fact there is a popular saying that “there is no end to how many ngew (relatives) a Sharchop will have.” That’s because relatives are acquired not only through bloodline but also through marriages of family members. For example, the village of my younger brother’s wife considers me as one of them. “You should have informed us earlier, we are sognu thur (one family),” said one villager in Kheni in Tashi Yangtse. I was visiting that area with my students when I was teaching in Sherubtse College. I was rather embarrassed that I forgot the norm.

Tashi Lebay – A dance that wishes for another such day. Hope it really brings some more of such times

The ngew culture also demands that ‘family’ relations be maintained till the 7th degree although now the norm is till the 4th degree. One of my cousins once counted how big we were based on the 7th degree rule. He came up with a figure for me: 2,400 relatives from 10 ethnic groups in 20 districts and extending beyond the borders to 5 countries of the globe. Hilarious? Not at all. I instead find it extremely wonderful. After all, what is life or happiness if it is not about a shared life, community or togetherness. When I was teaching in Kanglung I used to visit one relative every weekend and share meals, get to know the younger members that I had never met before and return to campus filled with enough food supply for the coming week. Those were some of the sweetest moments of my life. To walk into a village and discover that everyone was related to me in one way or another, what can you ask for more from life?

At the core of this extraordinary ngew culture is the kinship address system. Tshangla-lo has over 30 terms to address your kith and kin. (See the kinship map below). That is almost double as compared to other languages or dialects. The rich vocabulary is indicative of the strong bonding culture.

Using a kinship term does not just serve a mere referential purpose. My research shows that in calling someone ajang or khotkin or kota, a deeper inter-personal relationship is established, an identity is created and a social cohesion is set into motion.

Conversely, one could also assume (and I still have to verified this) that the lack of its usage would drift families and communities apart. That is already happening as people migrate to urban areas, as family income rises and there is less inter-dependence, and, of course, as imported terms such as “uncle”, “aunty” and “Sir” are used more and more.

After a couple of days in my two villages of Pam and in Tongling, my daughters had lost the count of how many cousins they had. “I think we have more than 100,” said one of them. But they were both certainly moved by the whole experience – especially the words of from my maternal uncle, Lepo, 82, who told them, “You may be ashamed of our living conditions. But this is where your father belong to. Come back again and if I am still alive, I will tell you where we come from. Your ancestry. You will be really proud to know that.”

The whole experience left an indelible mark on my daughters because on their Japanese side there is huge vacuum. They don’t know even one single maternal cousin. Japan has almost completely lost that ngew culture.

Hopefully, Bhutan never will.


NB – This article has been adapted from a course assignment piece. Anyone interested in the ‘academic’ version may drop into the mail box in the CONTACT page.

Eastern Bhutan is untouched by modernisation. People have still retained their innocence.


My great-grandfather was once unjustly outlawed by the local governor and driven out of our ancestral home. These people in Merak protected and sheltered my family for a decade. They consider me as their sognu (clan)


Inducting them into Bhutanese rural life which is a universe apart from Japan


The million dollar view from my land. You can see Bidung, Radhi, Bartsam and Yangyer and as far as Thrumshingla. I agreed to losing an acre for the farm road to pass through to get to the village.


In front of our ancestral home in Pam – The Tsorgon Phai