For the first few weeks in Khaling everyone kept coming up to me asking me if I was feeling settled yet and if I was having a difficult time adjusting. I had been labeled a bachelor almost immediately, and as such there was great concern for my ability to take care of myself. I later learned that this is somewhat of a cultural phenomenon. Bhutanese men apparently rely fairly heavily on the help of a woman to keep themselves alive. If that woman is not their wife, it is their mother. This sense of female dependency is only exacerbated by the large Indian presence among the school’s faculty, who are all of the same belief: that a wife is a necessity (for several rather chauvinistic reasons).
I have explained to numerous concerned colleagues that I have taken care of myself before and that I’m sure I will be fine, but their probing questions have continued to this very day, so I have learned to accept it as an act of kindness rather than one of nosiness, which it can feel like sometimes. “Sir, what are taking for lunch today?” Sir, have you taken breakfast this morning? No? Why not?” “Sir, do you not have a wife at home?” “Sir, where are you going? I’ll come with you.” The questions can certainly feel endless at times, but I know now that it is just friendliness lost in cultural translation. And there have been several times when my neighbours and colleagues concern has translated directly into delicious meals being cooked for me, and pleasant company for a meal, and that I have appreciated greatly. People have really been nothing but kind and welcoming to me, and I feel fortunate to be able to say that.
The other incredibly nice thing about my situation is that a large percentage of the teachers at my school are young, and many of them are actually bachelors as well. I have learned that this term, bachelor, really does mean a lot here because the reality is that married couples tend to keep to themselves, or at the very least go straight home to their families after work, rather than finding this or that to do. Ironically, two of my closest friends here are actually a married couple (although they would never describe themselves as being married, but in the school’s eyes they most certainly are – I will try to explain Bhutanese marriage later), Namgay and Choki. But they are not like the other married couples because they live independent lives as well as their joint lives, and perhaps more specifically Choki is relaxed and allows Namgay to do his thing (which is mainly endless sports and activities). They are both two years younger than me, they have been together for five years, and this is their second year teaching at Jigme Sherubling HSS.
And then there is Ugyen Kelzang, whom I have never actually called Ugyen Kelzang before, but rather U.K., as do most others. UK is a gem. I think that he has played a significant role in making me feel comfortable in Khaling. Most noticeably, UK’s English is probably the most fluent of anyone’s here. I wish that this wasn’t a factor, but there is something very comforting about someone who understands the subtleties of what I am saying. With many other people I catch myself in moments of having to find simplified or more direct ways of saying things, but I can speak to UK as I would speak to any of my friends at home. This is also due, in part, to UK’s familiarity with western culture. He is quite an avid film buff, and as such has seen many of the latest Hollywood movies, including several that I have not yet seen. The combination of his fluency and familiarity with western culture makes him very easy to talk to, which helped us form a solid friendship in the early days after my arrival in Khaling. It was only after the first two or three weeks that the other obvious reason for our strong friendship emerged. Although we are from extremely different cultures, and grew up in two different countries separated by more than twelve thousand kilometers, we are somehow remarkably similar people. We share a very similar sense of humour, we both consider ourselves to be somewhat sensitive guys who have struggled as such, and through countless discussions about past girlfriends, current girl troubles, and futures hopes with girls, we have come to realize that our experiences are almost one and the same. For all these reasons I have mentioned, we have become extremely close.
So the four of us, UK, Namgay, Choki and I have become a bit of a crew. We often hang out together, sometimes having deep, cultural and political discussions about both Bhutan and Canada, sometimes watching the English Premiere League football, sometimes going on simple outings like visiting the market, and sometimes venturing out into Khaling’s natural surroundings for a more adventurous endeavour.
Namgay asked me fairly recently whether I was expecting to make friends here before I came. I explained to him that I had expected to make friends in the sense that there would be people that I would get along with and share company with at times, but that I was also expecting to feel as if the friendships I made were going to be somewhat of a burden at times as well. I recognize that this might sounds slightly vain, but I mean to say that I was expecting the friends I made to be people with whom I was friendly, but not necessarily close. What I have found, however, is a group of friends whom I can truly be myself around, whom I feel like I understand and appreciate, and whom I would happily call my friends at home as well as in Bhutan.
And the reality is that this had made all the difference. I know that when I decided to come to Bhutan my parents and several friends of mine voiced their number one cause for concern as my potential loneliness, and since arriving here my neighbours have voiced the same concern, usually in the form of incessant questioning, but after less than one week of being here I was able to say to them, “Yes, I am feeling settled, and no, I’m not really having a difficult time adjusting at all."