Those naughty boys

(On the eve of the Teachers’ Day, I repost an article I wrote long time back to celebrate my life as a student, which brings back memories of my school, college and teachers who shaped me to who I am today.)

As a student in Dewathang Polytechnic in the early eighties, I was the eternal third in my class. One Indian lecturer who was very fond of me would keep repeating, “If only you gave up your sports and other distractions and be more regular with your attendance, you will come first! And you have to stop being naughty and stop going around with those naughty boys.” 

Naughty boys?

We may have been mischievous or naughty, no doubt, but we were never vicious, violent or crooks or criminals. We had fun – so much fun. It was part of growing up. But we never hurt others or ourselves – physically or emotionally. We were only adding colors and spices to the otherwise monochromatic life of Dewathang – that consisted of long and boring lessons of endless calculus and calculations, not-so-bad practical workshops (I liked them better) and an unpredictable weather (I hated this the most). In doing so, we kept everyone happy in our vicinity. We induced wholesome education on ourselves by organizing class picnics, archery matches, sports meets, chicken hunting, eating competitions, film nights and trekking expeditions. During annual concerts, we would entertain the whole town. Namgay Retty would be at the drums, Sonam Wangchuk was good with his guitar and Dorji Namgay and Phuntsho Wangdi (Kado) would croak some Beatles numbers and I always thought I was better than Kishore Kumar and Elvis put together. As we often rumbled the hostel room, Tshering Nidup, Deepak Kulung and Dawa Penjor would be our only audience clapping and joining in occasionally for the chorus. Then one by one the whole hostel would be in our room until the warden would come and issue another “last” warning at midnight. Our captain, Rinzin Namgay, would get reprimanded for not stopping us. We would appease him by promising to talk good things to a girl he was courting and who later became his wife. They are still married. 

We were all broke most of the time although we received a pocket money of Nu. 20 per month from the government. With that we would make the best use. Our night-outs would sometimes be walking 22 kilometres to Samdrup Jongkhar and then walking back after watching the night show. We felt a misplaced sense of achievement to be able the sneak out and sneak back unnoticed. You can never cage the youth. Their energy far outstrips any rules or regulations. It is biological – not about being illegal.

Being fit more than a fish 

And like all boys of our time, we were martial art enthusiasts and fans of Bruce Lee. We took to Karate from an Indian master with, of course, pathetic results – except for Dorji Wangdi, whom we still call Bolo (from the character in Enter the Dragon). He was good. But our Karate lessons got us out of our bed early. It helped boost our physique and self-confidence, especially with the opposite sex, and no one dared mess around with us. And me, once, pursued by an angry villager, after a routine raid on his orange orchard, I discovered that I could even run fast. So when the annual sports day came, I went on to set few short distance records to the amazement of the college cook who became my fan and served me with bigger portion of food. I was always starving back then.

Student_Dewathang_1985Dorji Namgay was the undisputed table-tennis and badminton champ and together with Sonam they made up the doubles team. He was also a good footballer and with Tshering, Deepak and I, we were probably the best defense the college football team had ever seen. Even teams from Assam feared us. Namgay was always in the first six of the volleyball squad and also played the spare goalie and did all the fights with the referee. Dawa was the top basket ball player – and never missed a lay-up – and a marathon champ.

We studied too

Of course we did attend classes too – to meet the attendance requirement. But we were more interested in things that would be more useful for us as practitioners in our professional life. And if there was something we really hated was what those so-called “good” students were good at – rote learning every lesson (at times without understanding the meaning). Those “good students” would never argue with teachers and would be submissive at all times. We couldn’t that take that either. But our system, however, was on their side. Because they could reproduce ad verbatim what was being taught, they scored higher marks and were commended. They were often referred to as “tip top” students. Whereas we were classified as “the naughty boys”, because we often asked too many questions or pointed out too many calculation mistakes made by the lecturers on the blackboard. Later as a university student in Italy we were mandated to ask questions. In the West a questioning mind signified urge for knowledge and intellectual growth. It was a culture shock that I had to overcome – and I did.

When lessons got boring, Namgay, who was a gifted artist, would sketch the lecturer – instead of taking notes. He would pass around the khaini supply for the day. Dorji and I would blow up test tubes and create explosions in the chemistry lab to the point that one lab assistant was specifically deputed to keep an eye on us. But weren’t we told to “experiment” or to try out new things? And Deepak would always copy my test results that after a while I starting making two sets of lab notes: one for him and one for me. Kado, Kumba, Kharka and Mukti often came to my room to revise the day’s lessons. I would have understood what the lecturers taught. And in making them understand too, I realised much later, that it was better than studying alone. Those days I was only trying to help my fellow classmates. Good begets good. And not everyone learns at the same pace. As a return favour, they would support me by bunking the class en masse, when the teacher was not on time. The good students would sometimes try staying back but we would bully them out somehow.

Breaking the norms and conventions

While the good guys followed every norm, we questioned, gave suggestions and deviated from all conventional wisdoms. In fact when we made to the senior class we made sure to mingle with our juniors and to party together. We often skipped classes to go swimming and fishing by the river. We visited all the houses and temples in the college vicinity, trekked to far off villages like Orong and even hitch-rode all the way to Shillong in India. We ventured into new territories and we made new friends (but not babies). Such experiences as students made us less cynical of other people as we grew older. Human management and public relations became our second nature. Our mental horizon was always open to accommodate more options, seek more opportunities and explore all possibilities. Finally when we got employed, we opted for jobs and careers that best suited our aptitudes and our strengths rather than yield to peer pressures. We were always ready to experiments but without causing explosions this time.

Life, I guess, is like a video game. As years roll on, you move to the next level. As students we had our time. Then we moved on to the next phase. Those “good students” remained what they were – as good students. More than two decades and half later, most of those “good” students haven’t made anything much with their careers. The “naughty” boys instead faired little better. The world changes so fast these days. Existing conventions and solutions do not address emerging problems. You need to grow out of them – not try constricted inside.

Dorji Namgay went on to become one of Bhutan’s first hydropower engineers – leading and successfully building the Basochu Project phase II in a record time. He worked as the managing director of STCB and managed to turn around a company that was given for dead. Namgay went on to do masters in architecture in Australia and after completing his obligation with the government he has now become a “tip top” filmmaker, animator and consultant architect. He has received four national film awards including two times for the best director. Tshering is the district engineer in Monggar and Phuntsho a divisional manager in the BPC. Sonam made a name for himself by building Thimphu’s only sewage line. And Dawa Penjore became a successful businessman in Trongsa after a short stint in the government. We lost Deepak but I am sure wherever he is he would humming some Cliff Richard number.

Rolling stone gather more moss

A popular saying goes that ‘a rolling stone gather no moss’. But I say that a rolling stone gather more moss. Be that stone.

The most important is that one should be happy and content. As for me, I am the one who made more experiments with my career – as compared to thers – from engineering to documentaries to journalism and to managing the media relations for His Majesty the King – and finally entering the world of teaching and research. 

If I could relive my life, would I do all these again? You betcha!

 

The original article was published in Bhutan Times and was later posted on my previous blog in 2010 http://dorjiwangchuk.blogspot.com/2010/04/those-naughty-boys.html

 

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Bottom L-R – Kencho Tsheten (Executive Engineer, His Majesty’s Secretariat), Nagphey (Executive Engineer, Thimphu Thromde), Chencho Tshering (Joint Managing Director, Mangde Chu Power Authority), Standing L-R – Thinley Wangchuk (Principal of Zorig Chusum), Kado Rinzin (Businessman), Yours Truly (Wanderer of the Space)

Eastern Bhutanese wedding joke

University of Macau, April 2018 – The module is Qualitative Research Methods and the class is undergraduate studies in communication. One group, mainly composed of Chinese students from Macau, decided to choose the topic of Bhutanese wedding culture as their mid-term assignment, and so I put them in touch with their peers in Sherubtse College. Several emails back and forth and Facebook messengers later, the assignment is turned in – done very well, following all the steps and tools of the qualitative methods.

One of the findings reads:

“In Eastern Bhutanese, they only had a bottle of Ara with the couple and then finished the wedding, it was pretty simple.”

As an Eastern Bhutanese I couldn’t help laughing at my wedding culture, which is true. And I will laugh whenever this line comes to my mind

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This group is presenting on online dating apps – a comparative analysis
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Eastern Bhutanese in Macau 🙂

Of Sungkeys and security checks

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Sungkeys (literally meaning Protection Chord) are amulets, lockets, objects or simple chords and strings that are blessed by high lamas and are believed to protect you from danger, misfortunes, bad dreams, obstacles, envies, natural disasters or tragedies. You wear them around your neck.

The Guru sungkey (on the left) was given to me by late Khenpo Karpo after I helped him develop print leaflets – when he launched Oddiyana Foundation, way back in 2004. It came with a warning that it should not be touched by anyone who smoked – lest it loses its jinlap (blessings/power). The right one is obvious. I received it in Tangmachu in 2009 during the Royal Tour to Lhuentse. 

My sungkeys have travelled with me across the globe – unhindered and unquestioned. Not even when I was passing through Islamic countries such as Qatar or the Christian Orthodox city of Bucharest – or even in the Evangelical heartland of Dallas Texas, did anyone cast a doubt or raised questions about them. In Bangkok, one security guy even sought blessings on his head from the one with our King.

Ironically, in our Vajrayana Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan, an airport personnel was almost grabbing them after the hand-held metal detector wand beeped while passsing over my chest. I instinctively slapped his hands away and pulled them out myself from behind my shirt to reveal what they were. More surprisingly the security went again, “What is this?”. I replied, “Whaaaat?” (In Dzongkha). I was totally speechless.

I have no idea whether it was the arrogance or ignorance that he was displaying. Someone said, it may be both. I thought mine was a stray incident and didn’t bother to even remember it until I saw another similar (mis)treatment that was posted on Instagram – thankfully by a Bhutanese and not by a foreigner. Apparently, he was asked to take them off and put them on a tray (even shoes go here) and run them through the X-ray machine.

Key takeaways:

1. Sungkeys are VERY personal items and can turn off people if you touch them or show any disrespect. Some sungkeys like tshenthups (I don’t have one) cannot be touched by others – other than the wearer. It is believed you cannot even go to toilet with them on.

2. If you don’t want to come across a clueless airport security and a potential desecration, I suggest removing them and putting them safely inside your bag before passing through the X-ray.

3. Be careful not to wear or carry animal parts such tiger fangs or ivories – or bullets, as sungkeys or as prayer beads, if you are flying out of Bhutan. These are prohibited items – and carry hefty fines and even jail sentences in some countries.

4. Our airport authority and law enforcement agencies may want to look into this incident and update their SOPs, if necessary. They should not relax the security, obviously, but they need not be draconian or illogical either. There are ways to do a good job. Sungkeys do not pose security threats. Their purpose is to achieve the opposite. That way, I found the police at Tashichho Dzong more civil.

5. And lastly, our people should be careful not to touch people’s bodies and personal items indiscriminately. Otherwise it won’t be long before a visiting tourist slaps a million-dollar lawsuit for (sexual) harassment and defame the whole country. The global #MeToo movement has made the ultra-sensitive westerners more sensitive now. 

 

Footnote:

– Please pass this message around. Hopefully my fellow parents will talk about this important traditional practice to the children. If you are a teacher, please share this with your students. Please do 😢😢😢

– My elder daughter recently complained of getting nightmares and bad dreams for days. I told her to wear the Yidam Tandrin sungkey which I had bought for her. She did and from then on she slept better. Coincidence? Maybe. But why be distrustful?

–  This issue might look trivial but there is no use of talking about big things such as cultural preservations or wholesome education if people don’t even gets these basics right

 

Bennett editorial cartoon

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Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel: The Buddhist Warrior

In Bhutan, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the founding father, is revered more as a Bodhisattva than anything else. Still, the Zhabdrung was much more than that. He was an extraordinary administrator, an accomplished monk, talented in all the thirteen arts and crafts and a strict vegan whose daily diet composed of milk and fruits.

Modern Bhutan will do well to go beyond reverance and learn from his administration style instead of only reading text books from the West. For example, Zhabdrung travelled extensively so that people need not take the trouble to come to see him. He believed in not taxing the people and maintained that the government should so good that the people will pay tributaries to run the administration.

Here in this piece, though, I would like to dwell on his great military strategies.

Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel was confronted with a series of invasions from Tibet during his reign. However, he did everything to minimize the casualties and just repel the invaders. Besides, he never set off on any conquest of a foreign land. He never wielded a sword. More often that not, he won without fighting. And thus, as contemporary historian Tshering Tashi puts it, he was a true Buddhist warrior. 

His biggest feat was in 1648-49, when a joint Tibetan-Mongol forces launched, what was perhaps the largest military campaign then. Gushri Khan, the Mongol warlord in Tibet and a direct descendent of Genghis Khan, felt the need to vindicate the loss of 1644 and despatched his troops under the command of Depa Norbu – the nephew of Tibetan Regent Sonam Chophel. Interestingly, the Mongols had not lost a single war ever since the Great Genghis set out to bring under his domain, of what could be the largest land mass in the history of the World under a single empire. From the coastal lines of Sea of Japan to the gates of Vienna, the Mongols have seen nothing but victories.

The joint Tibetan-Mongol invasion of 1648 was not just to reclaim the sacred relic, Rangjung Kharsapani, but also to capture the Zhabdrung and occupy the whole country. Tibet under the fifth Dalai Lama, Lobzang Gyatsho, was going through its golden period. Drukyul was invaded from two directions – Paro and and Punakha. A small contingent was also despatched to Thimphu where they managed to occupy Kawang Dzong*. It was the winter of 1648. 

The Bhutanese were also prepared by then. The central administration in Punakha was well established and two third of modern-day Bhutan was under its domain. Pazaps from Sha (Wangdue), Wang (Thimphu) and Paro valley made a formidable strength but was still far incomparable to the massive invading forces. Besides, unlike the professional war machines, the Bhutanese were mostly peasants and farmers who came forward in times of need. Still, the Bhutanese commanders were ready to face the enemies immediately – perhaps frustrated by the frequent intrusions from the North. They sought the permission to attack but Zhabdrung refused – ordering to prolong the war and not engage the intruders.

In Punakha the invaders were camped at Jiligang overlooking Punakha Dzong. At one point, to deceive them, Zhabdrung ordered the pazaps to file out from one gate and enter from the other – once in the morning and once in the evening. The invaders were made to believe that a large number of soldiers were stationed inside the Dzong and were going on daily rounds.

In another deception, a full ceremony of the immersion of Rangjung Kharsapani into Mochu was staged to fool the onlooking invaders into assuming that the Bhutanese really threw the sacred relic into the river.

Months passed, spring came and still Zhabdrung held the orders to attack. The Tibetans thought the Bhutanese had given up. Then, on one moonless night, the order was passed and the Bhutanese, in Paro, led by Paro Penlop Tenzin Drukdra launched a massive raid of the enemy camps – taking them by surprise. The captive Tibetan and Mongol soldiers, on the orders of Zhabdrung, were treated like guests, disarmed and freed back to Tibet. Depa Norbu managed to flee – facing wide criticism back home. 

When the news of the defeat in Paro reached Punakha, the invaders went into a total disarray, at which point the Bhutanese attacked. This time in broad daylight – energized by the victory in Paro. The warmer climate had also brought hot weather, sand flies and bees that the invaders had no immunity to. Religious historians and oral sources attribute this to the works of Guardian deities, while western-trained historians maintain that the Zhabdrung waited for the hot summer to engage with the Tibetan who were used to only to cold weather. Some scholars assume that many Tibetan soldiers could have fallen sick by then. 

Following the victory, though, Zhadrung Ngawang Namgyel did not celebrate. He was deeply saddened by the deaths. He commanded rituals and moelams to be conducted in all the temple across the country – in the memory of the dead from both camps. Later that year, he was 56 years old then, he commissioned a massive religious project to make over 11 million miniature statues of Buddha in memory of all the war victims in the all the invasions that took place. He worked together with the artisans, ensuring each and every statue, and late into the night for months. This apparently took a heavy toll on his health. Then came the news of the death of his only granddaughter. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel was further distressed and went through some serious health problems. He made frequent trips to Chuphu Tshachu in hope of gaining back his health. 

Then when he saw his end was nearing, he retreated into the Machen Lhakhang of Punakha Dzong – issuing instructions that no one should disturb him. The year was 1651. It is believed that he passed away on this day as per the Bhutanese calendar – the 10th Day of the 3rd Month.

 

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*  Kawang Dzong is a manor – adjacent to my house in Thimphu that has now been turned into Folk Heritage Museum. It is not a huge structure and the term, Dzong, was probably used the Tibetans to amplify their victory.

NB – This article is small part of a feature-length documentary film, Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyel – the Legacy of the Founding Father, which I wrote and directed. It was produced by the Royal Textile Academy. Research and production were carried out in the first half of 2016. A shorter version was screened during the Exhibition in 2016 to mark the 400-years of arrival of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel to Bhutan.

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Jarogang – the place where Zhabdrung stayed during the Tibetan invasion and destruction of Semtokha Dzong.
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Kasho issued to the Zarchen Family in Paro after the family put together a successful resistance to the first Tibetan invasion in 1617-18
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Painting of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in Semtokha Dzong
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A shoe belonging to Zhadrung that was gifted to a family in Gaza during the exit from Tibet in 1616
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A commemorative stamp of the first Tibetan-Mongol invasion of 1644

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Letter to Editor

I reproduce a letter I sent to the editor of Kuensel to express my concerns over wrongly (and hopefully unintentionally) damning the teaching profession. I argue that the titles and professions mentioned in detail in the news report are irrelevant in terms of carrying the story forward.

Media/journalism is not about reporting ALL or any types of facts or truth but only the essential facts and figures that are relevant, contextual and circumstantial to the event. This is called objectivity.

Journalists have to withhold names, or any direct references, and protect the identity of the victim/s as well as the perpetrator/s – to avoid harming the dignity, reputation and credibility of the respective families, friends and colleagues, who may have no role in the crime. Extra care has to be taken when the crime involves vulnerable groups such as children. This is as per the Journalistic Codes of Conduct.

News reports, opinions, commentaries, public comments should take into account the social, cultural, racial, ethnic, political and religious considerations so as to avoid wrongly perpetrating stereotypes of groups, individuals, institutions or professions. This is called cultural competency. This aspect is taught in journalism school as Media, Culture & Society and is the most complex and what could possibly attract serious retributions if media pratitioners or social media users are not careful.

There are more but these backgrounders should suffice to give a context of what I am talking.

Sub: Report Damning Principals and Teachers Across the Country?

Madam,

This pertains to the Kuensel’s report, Phuntsholing Police Detains Three for Throwing a Newborn, and the follow-up story on the most horrendous, shocking and inhuman act of recent times.

As a former long-time media executive, though, I wonder whether mentioning the designations or professions of the two men added anything to the story in terms of context or content. I strongly argue that they didn’t. Instead of starting off the story with, “Police have sent blood samples of the principal and teacher of Sertena School in Gakidling, Haa to Kolkata …”, the lead could have been simply, “Police have sent blood samples of the two men, involved in throwing a newborn, to Kolkata …”. The alleged crime is the focus here and a criminal, if proven, is a criminal. Their vocations or their place of work are inconsequential to the story.

This leads me to think that your two stories have, inarguably, hurt the morale of teachers and principals across the country. My claim is based on the observation that Bhutanese people, in general, have the culture of internalizing their titles, official positions and professions – to the point that we often refer to a person with his/her respective designation – and not by the name. I am not saying that this is good or bad. The point that I am making here is that when a news report damns a school principal, over 700 principals and thousands of teachers around the country would be equally embarrassed for no fault of theirs. In fact, a timid and an indirect response, posted on Facebook by another school principal, reads, “Not all the principals and vice principals are rapists and baby-throwers. There are others who touch lives and make difference”.

When the country is just reeling from that sickening incident of child-molestation by a vice-principal in Thimphu, Kuensel could have been paid more attention to the public mood – and not mentioned the professions of the alleged-criminals of Phuntsholing. While I understand the pressure from the social media to the mainstream newspapers these days, it is still not a good reason to overlook the established ethical standards or cultural competencies in the practice of media and journalism. The social media is what it is. Kuensel, as a 50+ years media agency, should not lower itself to the lowest common denominator set by some from the social media. It should still uphold good journalistic practices and professional values and the sensitivities of a society – as it has always done.

As a communication scholar, let me also add that the connotative meanings and broader ramifications of such reports do not help in the on-going public discourse on education – or on the issue of motivation-level or mass exodus of the teachers from the profession. If it all, they further dampen the spirits of thousands of teachers who are otherwise doing incredible jobs in some of the most impossible places and circumstances.

Dorji Wangchuk

University of Macau

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Dzongkha: More than just a language

In the talks that I gave in schools last month, I briefly touched upon the importance of Dzongkha. And since it was not the central theme of my talk, I just made a mention of it. So through the marvel of my blog, let me elaborate on this.

A discussion on Dzongkha preservation is a non-starter. Any attempt to further it is often met with a resounding should-we-abandon-English-then response. The question need not be answered with an either-or solution. Both can be mastered together. There are many who do. And so let me make it clear that I am not asking to choose between Dzongkha and English. My piece here is more on what would happen if we lose our local languages.

Well, first, the inconvenient truth. Dzongkha promotion or development has been reduced to another political and bureaucratic rhetoric or lip service – or a combination of both. As Bhutan increasingly becomes a Networked Society, which is predominantly in English, the situation of Dzongkha is only set to get worse. The future generation will be a linguistically-alienated generation of Bhutanese with devastating consequences.

My renewed concern, for our national language in particular, and for our local languages in general, stems from reading established works in socio-linguistics and anthropology. For example, according the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, an individual’s thoughts and actions are partly shaped by the language that individual speaks. In other words, while we know that a thought produces speech or action, the opposite seems to be equally true. Speech also determine our thoughts. Now, what does that mean?

Whorf’s concept of linguistic relativity argues that individual languages encode information about the world differently and subsequently influences the world view of the speakers. This perhaps explains the Three World-views propounded by our own Dr. Karma Phuntsho.

What is linguistic relativity? To put it bluntly, it means that if we speak only foreign language, our thoughts will also become foreign*.

Other recent studies in this field have even concluded that the words we use determine how our brain gets developed – with long-term influence on individuals and societies. Isn’t that bit scary? What is, then, the use of jealously preserving Dzongs and temples if people’s thoughts, attitudes and behaviours become alien to our country. Shouldn’t we be doing more to preserve, promote and develop our own language – and languages?

To put it into better context, when Bhutanese meet and ask each other how life was treating them, a standard reply would be halam chi in Dzongkha and shama thur in Tshangla. Both literally means ‘somewhat’, ‘almost OK’ or “almost not OK”. I argued in one of my papers that this expression is probably derived from the Mahayana Buddhist philosophy of middle path** where we avoid veering into the extremes – in thoughts, actions and words. If Bhutanese pose the same question in English, How is life? the answer will be quite different. It won’t be, halam chi or shama thur but rather a very direct reply such as ‘fine’, ‘not too good’, ‘very bad’ – all with very little consideration to middle path approach. In the long run, I assume that this directness could breed extremism because we will slowly lose the concept of moderation and modesty. That’s what is happening in the US right now where neoliberals and right-wing conservatives cannot find a middle ground.

The other important difference that I observe in our society is the use of pronouns. English-speaking Bhutanese tend to start the sentence with “I”, while in Dzongkha, and especially in Tshangla, the plural “we” is the norm. We say more “ngache” in Dzongkha or “aiba” in Tshangla in our group conversations. “I” promotes individualism while “we” embraces collectivism. Not only. In official meetings, if participants speak in Dzongkha, there is more mutual respect and cordiality through the use of honorific terms while in English the atmosphere gets more relaxed and direct – at times lacking respects or decorum. I am not saying which one is better here. It depends on the situation and context what is more important: respect or informality.

In one of my own study I have asked why Sharchops cherish large family network (I have close to a thousand) and found out that it is perhaps because of the rich set of vocabularies used to address every member of the clan. For example, instead of the generic and all-purpose ‘uncle’ in English, in Tshangla (the biggest language group among the Sharchops) we have ‘aku’ (father’s younger brother, stepfather), ‘aapchi’ (father’s elder brother), ‘ajang’ (mother’s brother). Even the highest local authority, Gup, is referred to as Azha Gup. The most powerful figure in the history of Tashigang, Dzongpon Thinley Tobgye, was addressed as Sey (son) Dopola. There are over 30 terms in Tshangla as opposed to less than 10 in English.

I argue that Kinship terms not only serves the referential purpose but also establishes and sustains a more intimate relation among the users. They define one’s personhood and place in the community – an important aspect of sense of belonging, identity and confidence. So, people from my village often refer to my siblings as Jangchu’s ‘tshow’and ‘tshowmin’ because my aunt is a head of our family. Likewise, no one referred to me with my official title (even when I had one very high) but with what I was to that community member: ata, khotkin, ajang, aku or apchi. This practice keeps the community bonded because somehow somebody will be always related to everybody.

As more and more Bhutanese not only migrates to other countries but also moves to bigger cities of Thimphu where usage of ‘uncle’ and ‘aunty’ has replaced the proper kinship terms, we can expect the traditional family networks to slowly drift apart and go tangential.

A bigger tragedy, however, would be the fact that as the national language and vernacular languages decline and English becomes the dominant language, our thoughts, attitudes and behaviour will see a dramatic shift from close-knit and collective communities to a society advocating for more individual freedom, rights and equity – if it is already not happening. Arrogance, materialism and indifference will follow and no one will listen to anyone. This absolutely does not augur well for a small country like Bhutan.

What’s the solution? Well, everyone knows what needs to be done. What is not to be, is to force people to speak the language or to promote it at the expense of English – or point fingers or expect the Dzongkha Development Commission to do the miracle. Dzongkha will flourish only when people take full ownership and embrace whole heartedly instead of being forced, coerced or made to choose. Much has been achieved through popular culture and broadcast media. More can be done in terms of research and development to enhance teaching pedagogy and tools besides encouraging and financing books, publications and social media apps.

Maybe then there is hope that our national language will thrive.

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* In some other studies, the benefits of speaking multiple languages have been more pronounced. Fluency in multiple languages is possible and should be the way forward in case of Bhutan. My own daughters are perfect in three – Dzongkha, English and Japanese – written, spoken and reading.

** Middle path approach is the core philosophy in Mahayana and Vajrayana that sets it aside from the older Theravada tradition. It is a very important philosophy that has given birth to social, cultural and linguistic traditions of Bhutan.

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With my only non-navy gho because it is inauspicious to wear dark ghos in an inauguration
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I encouraged the Dzongkha teachers of Yangchen Gatsel to take note of this Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Brave New World?

(In this second part of the talk I gave in Tenzin Higher Secondary School and in Karma Academy, I share some tips to survive in the fast and changing world that they are going to live in. The following is a transcript of my talk)

First of all, let me apologize to the teachers for taking away your classes. You got some make up classes to do now.

I have been asked to give a talk to motivate you (students), to provide you some inspiration. Now this is bit frightening for me because the last thing I know you would want is for someone to tell you what to do, and that too from someone with no official status these days. I had come here just to meet the media studies students but your Principal thought I would have something worthwhile to share with you.

Let’s admit, there is so much of negativity in the air these days – of corruptions, nepotism, abuse of power, dirty politics, miscarriage of justice, and so on. I am sure for you growing up with these stories flying around must be very discouraging. I don’t say that they are not happening. But not everything is true and in any case they do not define our country – or who we are as a nation. Let me tell you that everywhere in the world there are similar challenges and unlike here, where we have a King who will ultimately take on the most difficult of issues we face, in other countries people often have to fend for themselves.

When I was growing up there were also talks of corruptions and nepotisms. Yet, I sort of succeeded to do what I wanted to do, achieve what I wanted to achieve and go wherever I wanted to go. I neither had a powerful uncle nor was I born into any influential family. My father was a truck driver and my mother – an illiterate housewife. In other words, if I can be successful, so can you. Do not be discouraged by the negativity that is engulfing us. Even if they were true, they cannot stop you or bring you down – if you are determined to pursue your goals.

The other widespread perception that we have these days is that no one cares for anything or anyone in this country. Well, I do. Really. And that’s why I am here. And I know lots of people who care for what is going on in our country. And they are  mostly ordinary people like me. It is from them that I derive my sense of optimism. I have lived in countries where leaders only enrich themselves. I have been to other nations where every man is for himself. Our country isn’t one of those countries. There are, of course, people among us who only think of themselves. But we can’t help it. In Buddhism, we say we are, after all, saang magaybi sem (Unenlightened Beings). So, the people who care for you and your future will keep working for you. And as is life, so is our nation. It keeps moving forward.

Having said the above, though, let me tell you that every generation faces its fair share of challenges and I faced mine. I walked for days to get to school. I slept on hard wooden beds without mattresses and blankets. I travelled on open trucks in the rain with potato bags. I went barefoot for much of my childhood. That was okay. But I also went hungry at times and that was not okay. It was terrible to go to bed with an empty stomach. None of you I know go barefoot or hungry. In other words, you are already ahead of me – in relative terms. So, be positive.

What is really difficult for you though is the fact that the country I grew up in will be very different from the one you will live your professional life through. And by that I am referring to the additional skills required to have a so-called successful life. Just studying hard and getting good marks in your exams is not going to be enough. Adding some hard skills may not also suffice to even land a job, let alone do well.  The competition will be fierce. When I completed class X, there were only 126 of us coming from six high schools in Bhutan. Now every year we see over 10,000 of you. However, not only the number is bigger but of late, the world is also changing at a faster pace. The skills and knowledge that you possess gets outdated sooner than you realise.

Hence, let me share the four skills/attributes/characters that I have found handy, which should also be useful for you. For me more than my degrees and “talents”, these softer skills have brought me this far.  I call this VARA.

  1. Values – Cultivating basic principles and moral standards helps you not only to be a respected member of a community but also to stay grounded on your feet. Neither positions of power over-excite you – nor being ‘nobody’ kills you emotionally. Values also keep you away from bribery, materialism, temptations and troubles. The time to sow the seed of good values is now – when you are young.
  2. Attitude – If there is one thing that I hate about us, the Bhutanese, is our over-blown ego and attitude. Instead, developing a sound attitude towards your life and learning and towards other people will ultimately determine whether you will be accepted or whether you will turn off people who want to help you. Nobody achieves anything alone. If you put on an attitude no one will take you in their team.
  3. Reputation – In this age of free-fall social media, where you cannot hide anything, a new form of capital is emerging. It is called reputation. With moral decadence, people’s trust in you will be your greatest asset – far greater than money or social capital. You will face temptations. Endure them. Do not lose your credibility. As you grow older you will be extremely proud that you never sold your soul for anything. It is the greatest of feelings. Believe me.
  4. Adaptability – The world that I lived through my professional career was at times cruel – and very heartless. But if there is one thing that saved me, it was my adaptability – my resilience – my ability to reinvent myself time and again. From an engineer to documentary filmmaker to entrepreneur to palace staff to an educator, I sailed through seamlessly. I must admit that it wasn’t easy. The world that you will inhabit will be in constant and greater flux – changing more rapidly. If you cannot adapt quickly or if you cannot reinvent yourself, you may find yourself in a corner. Start acquiring skills now and newer skills as you move ahead in life.

If you do the above, I can guarantee you that you will not go to bed hungry at night.

 

(In the Q&A that followed, students asked me on the state of Bhutanese broadcast media, the difference between rights to information and freedom of speech, the news of a vice principal charged with sexual harassment, skills to become a journalist, etc.)

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The school is located in Lango gewog in Paro valley.
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Ready to go. Laptop, projector, mic and laser beam.
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The Assistant Principal, me, Diksha Gurung (my former student now teacher), and Lopen Kesang. Behind me is a photo bomber
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Over 560 people gathered to hear the Messiah 🙂
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I am in my element when I have smiling faces listening to what I like to talk about.

Managing your social media

This is the first part of talk I gave in two schools in Paro – the Karma Academy and Tenzin Higher Secondary Schools. I was invited by two of my former students, who are now teachers, to talk about media literacy – an elective subject recently introduced in Bhutanese schools – and also to motivate our youth towards positive thinking about future.

Social media literacy: managing Facebook

The advent of democracy has put one requirement on us: media literacy. This was because no democratic process would be successful, if people did not understand the mass media.  Now we have yet another requirement that has come about so quickly: social media literacy. And unlike the former, where one could possibly chose not to (meaning you can live your life without reading newspapers or watching the TV), social media and technology such as mobile phones do not give that choose. It is there with you, it follows you. The choice is you consume, or be consumed.

Yet one could still choose to consume wisely and in which case it becomes a very a powerful tool that you could shape to benefit you and to serve you. Here are some strategies that I adopt for myself.

  1. Take a break – I make sure that I don’t get addicted to social media and I do that by taking regular Facebook break – sometimes for a week and sometimes for much longer. I choose to control the social media and not be controlled.
  2. Refresh your page regularly – Every few years I delete my social media accounts and start fresh. This time around there is no much private information – about where I worked, what I do and when I was born. This way the algorithms developed by Facebook and other marketing sites cannot target me that easily. I invite you to do that. Delete all private information from your pages. Those who know you, know you.
  3. Beware of predators – Do not post pictures of your siblings or children studying in India or elsewhere. You are putting them at risk. Delete any picture of your baby sister or anyone who is under-aged.
  4. Turn off the Location information- You are making a moving target of yourself. And do not make running commentaries of your flights. Please leave Paro Airport without posting a picture of yourself posing in front of the plane. If you must post any pictures of your travels, do after you have completed your trip. And do not post pictures of your passport and boarding pass. The bar codes have all your vital information.
  5. Beware of what you say and what you share – Do not make damaging statements even as a joke to closest friends. Statements like “I hate you, woman”, can later cost you a job at some UN organisations. Showing off a travel to certain regions of the world can be a reason for visa rejections to some countries. Simply sharing a picture or a news story of some controversial world leaders may also be costly too. Be careful what you ‘like’, share or comment.

 

 

(To be continued: The second part of the talk is titled Brave New World?)

The following are pictures from Karma Academy, Paro

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Class XI Arts students. I was called back by the class to have a group picture with them.
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Mr. Nice. Dorji Tshering, the Principal, and I worked together briefly in His Majesty’s Secretariat. Our parents were also very close friends in the 1970s in Phuntsholing 
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View of Shaba from Karma Academy
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View of Dra Karpo sacred sites
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I loves cafes
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Food, Glorious Food!

Teaching, a noble profession? You bet

Yangchen Gatshel School, Dakarla, Thimphu

I resourced a professional development (PD) session today on the invitation of Lopen Sonam Dendup, a teacher at the school. Hate to admit but we met on Facebook. He invited me through FB too.

I shared my short journey in teaching- filling in as an adjunct professor in Sherubtse College where I stayed for three semester followed by a short stint as a Dean at Royal Thimphu College. And now as a PhD candidate (where I am also a teaching assistant) and researcher at the University of Macau.

I added, “They say teaching is a thankless job. For me, having been in more ‘prestigious’ jobs, professions and positions of power, my two and half years in Sherubtse and RTC are the only ones where I am remembered, thanked and cherished. So I disagree with that statement. These days, even after years that I have not seen them, I have my former students who visit me or are very thankful. But I never had a former employee even make a mention. Some are now even embarrassed that I helped them secure a job or a skill. They would to believe they are self-made. Nor has there been any contractor who is grateful for the millions made from my projects. So as teachers do not feel so cheap. You will have smiling faces come up to you as you age. That’s worth more than anything money can buy. But you have to do your job well. ”

After a two-hour discussion on demystifying terrifying words like research, Masters, PhD, and talking about my works on Buddhist communication and middlepath journalism, I concluded with where I started off the day,

“However, for those of you who are young, I do not wish to dissuade you from dreaming. We all have dreams and aspirations to be better off – financially, intellectually and emotionally. Go for it but stay around this area of education and research. Trust me, it is a field that provides you the most fulfilling life. And it only gets better with age. However, whatever you plan to do, just do not chase money, though. Work hard. Work smart and get your priorities right and let money follow you. It does, believe me.”

For the content of the interactions on how to be a good teacher, I will detail them in my blog. Because what I learnt from the teachers of this school merits some careful analysis and a blog entry each.

So stay tuned.

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For our future leaders

I took some time off today to guest lecture the PGDPA class – the elite group of RCSC-selected officers trainees – at the Royal Institute of Management. Here is an excerpt from my three-part talk. I shared a skill, a tool and a concern.

Skill – Communication: Communication is key to any successful relationships or leadership. Just because we can talk, read or write does not mean that we can communicate well. In fact it is difficult to communicate effectively. I struggled all my life and I still do. And also it is easier to miscommunicate than to communicate well. That’s why conflicts occur, relationships die or misunderstandings happen because of miscommunication, or from not communicating enough.

As future leaders in the government, what might eventually make or break your career will be your communication skills. How effectively can you communicate your ideas, views and visions – to your bosses, peers and subordinates. You will be leading teams to complete certain tasks – big and small. Unless you can communicate effectively to your members, you won’t get anything done.

There are three things to remember in communication. First, it is contextual – in that every communication must happen within, and accompanied by, the necessary premise. Don’t assume people know what you are talking about. Second, you need to know your audience. How you talk to a stranger should be different from how you talk to your lover; How you talk to a group of students is different from talking to a group of farmers. Third, it is about meanings in that your audience will make their own meanings of your messages, which may or may not be what you meant. If you are cognisant of these three aspects, you will learn to communicate well.

Tool – Postmanian Approach to public policymaking. As public officials you will be involved in making rules, laws and policies. Now public policy has its own theory and practice, which you will study in another course. Here I will offer you a simple tool that I have adapted from media ecology theory by Neil Postman.

This is in light of the countless numbers of rules that government agencies make every day. Rule-making by our public offices rivals archery as our national sports. Only gossiping, perhaps, overtakes the two. In many cases, rules are made to ease their work or protect themselves – and rarely for public interest, convenience or safety. ‘Who exist for whom?’ is a question, at times.  For example, the requirement to submit same set of documents to different government agencies for different purposes. Why can’t the agencies, operating under the same government, coordinate among themselves and verify the information based on a central database.

As a new generation of civil servants, I would like you to be more civil and be of service to the people – not to lord over them. This is mainly because “your” public will be different than “my” public, although we are talking about the same Bhutanese people.

Public policy analysis or regulatory impact assessments are complex subjects. So I will present you a tool, which is a set of three questions that you can ask against before setting out to work on an expensive piece of legislation, policy or a regulation. The questions are:

1. What is the problem that this rule/policy provides the solution?

2. Whose problem is it anyway?

3. What other problems or consequences are likely to emerge as a result of this rule/policy?

Let’s take the example of the one-way street rule around the BOD, where cars coming from Chorten cannot shoot straight towards Lungtenzampa bridge – and instead have to take a trip along the Norzin Lam. What is the problem that this rule provides the solution? Possible traffic accidents that will involve car owners, police, insurance companies, etc. Whose problem is it anyway? The car owners, police, insurance companies. What other problems or consequences are likely to emerge as a result of this rule? Time waste, traffic jam, fuel consumption, pollution, frustrations, road rage, accidents. I estimated that just doing this stretch is costing our country, annually, Rs. 7,000,000 in fuel. I say “Rs” and not “Nu.” because we don’t produce petrol. Why are we burning this amount unnecessarily to avoid accidents that may or may not even happen? Thimphu has more than 30 such one-way streets. So you can imagine the cumulative amount wasted for nothing. Teach people to be civil and to drive responsibly.

Concern – Sovereignty and nation-building: As future leaders, you, more than any group have the added responsibility to fully understand the issue of sovereignty and nation-building. Both these tasks are a work-in-progress. And the moment we think that we can relax or be complacent we are in trouble. We cannot take sovereignty for granted. Nor can we think that nation-building is over. It is an unfinished business. For a small country, the geopolitics realities will remain the same. Only people will change. In this age of globalised economy and interconnected world, threats to sovereignty may also come from massive cyberattacks or economic dominance. As you take your positions in the civil service, you will need to keep these somewhere deep inside you – at all times. Don’t get caught off guarded.

My generation and the generations before me have brought the country till this point. Let me assure you that we have done our best. It may not be the best country in the world (we actually think it is) but we have given our best. What you do or where you want to take the country in your time is up to you.

I wish you all the fun when you are here. Out there some unfinished business is waiting for you.

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(photo: RIM Website)