Sunday, September 29, 2013

Family, Friends and Neighbors

The Bhutanese are a very social. To go anywhere alone is essentially incomprehensible. Walking to school, walking to the shop in the afternoon, certainly a trek from Gaselo to Chamgang via Nahi. Even a group of Bhutanese will have a guide for a hike, they want someone along who is familiar with the area. None of the take off on your own frame of mind which is so prevalent in the U.S. However, navigation here is much more difficult. The trails are a result of use and generally lead to someone’s house. Signs are unheard of and routes can be mysterious, especially when wandering in the rural areas. There are established hikes that are written up in guide books and those trails are usually easier to follow. Everyone here is just programmed to have company of some sort all the time, even if it is for a five minute stroll to school. I am always asked, “charo?,” meaning friend, where is your friend? At one nearby monastery, Shalipanca, an older monk looked around behind me apparently disbelieving I was walking all that way by myself, he kept asking, charo? Many times I spend the evenings cooking dinner for myself and reading. The Bhutanese clearly think I am deprived. I have always enjoyed quiet alone time, especially here where each day is filled with the challenges of communicating in a foreign country. To their dismay I do not even have a TV!
     Television has become ubiquitous here, every house, tiny rural shacks to urban apartments, every place of business, some the size of a closet open to the sidewalk, has a TV on all the time. The picture is often grainy, the TVs are generally small, of low quality, and the reception poor but it is a window to a different world. The programming consists of a few Bhutanese channels, one of which is national news, several Indian channels, soap operas and movies, BBC which is nice, CNN, and some American channels which include lots of wrestling, Discovery (which is quite popular), and some older shows and movies. Sports are also popular, football (soccer), cricket, and the NBA seem to be the ones many people follow. No one knows anything about American football, they all think it is the same as rugby. Another aspect of TV everywhere is cable stung from every building and run to every apartment in random lengths, often wrapped around a pole or even a house as it seems they are reluctant to cut the cable to size. People here are curious about the world but their connection to family and friends is very strong and most folks find comfort in being close to home. 
     The building I live in is four units, two up and two down. The other three are occupied by families of at least four people ranging in age from one to me as the elder. This little neighborhood provides a lot of company for all who live there. Everyone is in and out of each other’s place all the time, I am on the low end of the visitation scale. They take care of each other’s kids, share meals, and just provide company so no one is alone. The building is new and we are the first set of tenants, but they are all Bhutanese so they are automatically familiar with each other no matter how long they have been in this area or where there home might be. Obviously a marked contrast to the U.S. where so many people do not know their neighbors and often feel wary of them as strangers.
      The traditional Bhutanese house has a large room for the kitchen. It is the communal area of the house, it is likely where everyone is unless they are doing something specific in another part of the
house. Meal prep can be an ongoing affair during the day as food is readied for three meals. Many people might help and meals are taken on the floor with everyone sitting in a loose circle around the serving dishes. A few folks coming and going is not uncommon, meal times are flexible and it is OK for folks to eat when the have time. Meals are pretty quick, Bhutanese are efficient eaters and socializing, except on holidays, is generally at a minimum during the meal itself. Many newer Bhutanese houses, like mine, have a separate room for the kitchen, a bit like the houses built in the U.S. during the 50’s and 60’s. It confines the cooks to an area away from the group which seems very un-Bhutanese to me. In the U.S. all kitchens in newer housing include living areas so many people can congregate where the action is. Perhaps Bhutan will move in that direction in the future.
Traditionally Bhutanese sit on the floor, furniture is sparse, but more and more folks here have furniture in their living areas. Some of them, like most Americans, have gotten stiff and do not sit on the floor comfortably. Others just seem to like the idea of furniture. I was at my neighbors for dinner the other night and the whole group ended up pushing the table aside and sitting in a circle on the floor, clearly the more comfortable arrangement for these folks. Fortunately we sit on the floor a lot at home so I am happy to sit there any time.
     Even though their country is rather sparsely populated the Bhutanese have no personal space issues. They will walk close together, frequently brushing against each other. When someone is walking past them they will give just enough room to squeeze through but not always without touching. I have seen many tourists, North American and European, with expressions that indicate they believe they have been rudely treated when this happens, whereas in reality they are getting treated like everyone else. People of all ages and genders will sit close together, touching or arm around the shoulders. However, this does not apply to couples, public displays of affection at any level are nonexistent. 

 Families here are very different from those in the U.S. In Bhutan the bonds that bind a family together are determined by birth. One’s family ties remain pivotally important throughout one’s life no matter what. In the U.S. we determine the bonds that tie us together by how much time we spend together. It is very possible for family members in the U.S. to grow apart from each other to the point they seldom communicate or see each other. The small size of Bhutan along with the homogeneity of the population make things easier but the culture here dictates absolutely that family ties are permanent. Many children grow up in boarding schools only seeing their parents for a few months each year. Parents think nothing of leaving their children with relatives while they travel abroad for an education or move to another part of the country for a job. They do not need to worry about developing that strong sense of family through time spent together like we Americans do. As a result Bhutan has only a very few older people who are not being looked after by their children. However, as western ideas move in the number of geriatric indigent is growing. Time will tell where things end up here in Bhutan.

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