Saturday, November 23, 2013

Tea Parties

A year often seems like a long time. If one is waiting for a visitor then it could be too long. If I look back at my years they are recognizable pieces of time but not so large. For many spending a year in Bhutan would be unimaginable, but for me it was tied to teaching for one full school year and so it made sense. Being involved in school creates many opportunities while at the same time limits them due to the constraints of the school schedule. Working with a group of students and faculty as well as living in the community has opened the door to knowing many people much better than a traveler ever could. It has also provided many insights into Bhutanese culture, society, government, and religion. The parts of the country I have visited have been chosen carefully as my time to travel has been limited. I have gotten to know the area around my village of Gaselo on many afternoon walks. The Punakha Valley and its surrounds have provided endless day long excursions which have filled my weekends many of which are a short 1½ days. Even last February with nearly a year ahead of me I tried to make the most of opportunities as I knew my stay in Bhutan was finite.

Nothing spells out the end of a school year like final exams. My “question papers” have been prepared for several weeks and now is the time for students to take exams and for me to start
marking them and working on year grades. Just over a month remains before I depart Bhutan, likely for the last time. It is BCF (Bhutan Canada Foundation) policy to bring teachers to Bhutan for one year. We are considered to be volunteers because we are paid by the Bhutanese government as civil servants. This monthly salary, which amounts to a bit over $300 at current exchange rates, is plenty to meet one’s needs in Bhutan but certainly does not go far in terms of paying bills at home or buying plane tickets. It is also BCF policy to encourage teachers to stay for another year after they have figured out how things work and have become comfortable in their situation which varies greatly for each individual. As I look toward my departure I can so clearly see so many reasons for returning for a second year, primarily to be able to begin a school year with some understanding of how things work and with a few personal relationships in place. In my case, however, the rules under which BCF operates clearly state that a teacher cannot turn 60 while in Bhutan, this age limit has given me the opportunity to be here for this year but no more. Most of the BCF teachers this year are not returning, it is a huge commitment and not everyone can step away from their lives at home for unlimited amounts of time.

Early in the year one of my colleagues, Pema, was traveling to Thimphu regularly to be with his wife when their second child was born. After the arrival of their baby I congratulated Pema on the birth of his second son. He shrugged it off and told me that births are not such a big event in Bhutan but deaths, on the other hand, are celebrated elaborately and the anniversary commemorated with a family gathering for three years. The lesson here is that endings are dear for the Bhutanese. I began to realize this as I witnessed several dinners to celebrate the departure
of various faculty during the year. As the end of this school year draws near there have been many events to celebrate the conclusion of this term. Many of these go under the headings of “tea party” or picnic. Tea and biscuits, that is crackers and cookies, are served along with an hour or two of songs and dances performed by the students. If it is a picnic it lasts longer, sometimes all day, and lunch is served. Everything is organized by the students. Many class groups have these events, they have been together in one class room all year. The boarding school students have a bunk in the
hostel (dorm) and a spot at a table for two in their class rooms and that is their only personal space for the year. The class groups know each other well and become quite close by the end of the year, hence a celebration is called for. All of these farewells have been going on for more than a month and now my classes are taking exams, the end of this school year is nigh.

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