Monday, April 11, 2011

Blog #33: Back in the Saddle

It’s good to be back in Khaling. And it’s good to feel that it’s good to be back. There is no question in my mind that staying on for a second year was the right decision for me.

It really does come down to people and the relationships I have formed. I visited a few of my friends in their home state of Kerala while I was in India. By the time we were reunited it had only been a month since I had left them, but still it was so comforting to see their faces and to reconnect with them. They took such great care of me while I was with them, welcoming me into their homes, stuffing me with the most delicious food I had eaten in a good long time, and proudly showing me the sights of their hometowns. My time in Kerala was just what I needed to reassure myself that these relationships that I had formed would be enough to help me through another – probably longer – year in Bhutan.

I didn’t really speak to any of my Bhutanese friends over the winter break. I was in India doing my own thing; they were back in Bhutan doing theirs. But something happened on my first night back in Bhutan that spoke volumes to me about my friends. I was upset and frustrated about something that had happened earlier that day, so I decided to take a walk through Phuentsholing to clear my head. Eventually I wandered into a park which was home to a beautiful temple. After spinning dozens of prayer wheels I found a bench and just sat there thinking about everything that had happened over the last year, the last month, the last 48 hours. For the most part, India had been so chaotic that I didn’t always think about what was happening until long after it had happened. After a few minutes of deep breaths and meditation I took my phone out of my pocket and sent UK a quick text message to let him know I was back in the country. No more than thirty seconds later my phone rang. There was such excitement in his voice that I was instantly lifted out of whatever funk I had been in. He knew that I wasn’t feeling so great at the moment and – like any good friend would – he shared with me something that was bumming him out in order to make me feel better.

Needless to say, it was so exciting to be reunited with all of these great friends when I arrived back in Khaling. And not just my close friends, but also my other colleagues who have become friends over the past year. We are like one big family here, and so, within the first few days of being back, the JigSher family gathered around a campfire in the middle of the school campus and celebrated our reunion in style.

Campfires in Bhutan are the real deal. The Bhutanese don’t mess around. I’m talking five to six foot high flames and skin scorching heat. By the time my friends and I arrived at the party the fire was healthy. We sat and poured some drinks and joked around. Eventually, the whole staff was encircling the fire and engaging in the celebration.

Over the past year I’ve noticed that every once in while I have these out-of-body experiences. There is really no other way to explain it. I think we all experience these such moments from time to time, so I’m sure everyone can relate – these moments in which your mind drifts from the external world to its own internal world – moments where you exist only as a mental entity, not as a physical one. That night I had one of those moments. I just remember looking around and feeling something special, some kind of energy. It was like the scene at the end of the movie where the music comes in and the camera cuts to different groups of people talking and laughing in slow motion. It just felt like a moment, and in that moment I was happy to be back in Khaling.

And Khaling welcomed me back the only way it knew how – it rained. At this point in time I can laugh about it, but it’s really not that funny. It rains all the time here. But I can deal with the rain – no problem. It was, however, a problem that I not only returned to the rain, but also to a water supply problem. For some reason – I’m still not sure what that is – none of the houses in my community had water for the first two weeks of being back. I consider it to be the perfect example for teaching students about irony. Outside it wouldn’t stop raining, but inside we couldn’t get a drop of water.

So rain outside, dry taps inside – what a great situation to return home to. But Khaling wasn’t done yet, oh no! She still had one more trick up her sleeve. What could be worse than a freezing cold winter with constant rain and no water? Well, a freezing cold winter with constant rain, no water and no lights, of course. That’s right, no lights (which is a Bhutanese way of saying no electricity). Electricity simply did not exist during daylight hours. This might not seem so bad, but cooking without electricity is no easy feat, and coupled with our water problems, the situation became more of a headache than I was really hoping for during the transition back to work. I suppose I could have managed if the electricity just went off during the day. That, however, was not the case. For the most part the lights would come on for no more than an hour a night, and for no longer than fifteen minutes at a time. It reached the point that I would always sit with my flashlight beside me and a box of matches ready to light the candles strategically placed around my house.

I have always found that blackouts create an ambiance that can’t be reproduced in any other scenario. In the absence of electricity, human energy seems to thrive. I began to take comfort in the collective sighs that could be heard through the walls and windows as televisions, stereos, curry cookers and the like all shut off simultaneously. Doors would swing open and the members of my community – my friends – would all emerge and gather in front of our houses. And I can honestly say that there was a smile on each and every person’s face. This is Bhutan. This is Khaling. These things happen and they aren’t going to dampen our spirits; nay, they will lift us up and bring us together. We are, after all, a community.

And I don’t think I have ever before felt such a part of a community. The faces here don’t ever change. Walking through town, you see the same people as you did at school earlier that day and on the football field after school and when you step out of your house in the morning. There is a stone wall separating my house from the school’s campus. It’s just low enough that I can see students walking to and from school, just low enough that they can see me. It has become the perfect symbol of the insignificant distinction between my work and home life.

On a typical weekend I will wake up, make a cup of coffee and sit outside on my veranda listening to music while reading or writing (this is actually the case right now). Students stroll by casually, usually giggling at my messy hair or the unfamiliar music spilling out from my house. At one time I found it awkward and uncomfortable, now I kind of enjoy it. I think it’s nice that they get to see the other side of their teachers, the more human side. I mean, it’s Sunday morning and I just rolled out of bed, why wouldn’t my hair be a mess?

And the students aren’t shy about blurring the lines either. I’m not sure whether it is just with me because I am “different,” but I don’t think so. They seem perfectly willing to do so with UK as well.

Sundays are the only day of the week when there is a little bit of freedom for students to have some fun. As a result, Sunday has become synonymous with football. So, while I’m sipping my coffee and jotting down my thoughts or writing a song, the boys are usually gathering on the football field directly across from my house. It doesn’t take long before students are shouting across the road to me, telling me to come join them, insisting when I decline their initial invitations. Sometimes I stand my ground and go about my business on my balcony; more often than not I join them. It’s one aspect of my experience here that I really enjoy, even though it wears me out at times. Students always seem to want me to be a part of what they are doing. They don’t want distance from their teachers as they might back in Canada. I don’t cramp their style. If anything, they cramp mine.

This lack of space can sometimes yield embarrassing results. A few times I have been woken up on Sunday morning to a knock on my door. I drag myself out of bed (sometimes more reluctantly than others), throw on my sweatpants and a t-shirt and open up. And who should stand before me but one of my class twelve students here to hand in an assignment that was due the previous day or to ask a question about an assignment that is due the following day. The sleep is still firmly crusted in my eyes, my mouth is still sticky and pasty, and my voice is still hoarse. I should be embarrassed – I know this – but come on, it’s 7:30 a.m. on Sunday morning!!! I’m allowed to look, feel and be this way.

All of this would bother me if I didn’t enjoy the students as much as I do. My students were a big reason for me wanting to stay here for a second year, and I’m once again reassured that this was the right decision for me. I’m lucky enough to be teaching two of the same classes as I taught last year. What’s even more fun is that the two classes I have continued on with are both class twelve classes, the senior-most students at the school.

This is a privilege for a few reasons. Firstly, I have watched my students move into positions of leadership in the school and thrive in those roles. It is no surprise to me that they are doing so well as the school’s captains, and it honestly wouldn’t surprise me if some of these students became the leaders of the nation in the future. They are smart, mature, witty, funny and cool. They have the full package and class with them has become an absolute pleasure. It has taken on a life of its own, often evolving into highly intellectual and philosophical conversation (which might not sound so productive in terms of covering the curriculum, but is undeniably beneficial to students’ development as English language speakers).

This leads to the second reason that I feel so fortunate to be teaching these students once again. The class twelve curriculum is right up my alley. It’s filled with highly philosophical material that I find refreshingly conducive to discussion and debate. And now that my students are more familiar with my teaching style they are no longer so timid to step in and participate in figuring it all out. Through Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror” I’m able to engage them in existential discussion and questions of self-perception and identity. In a story entitled “The Mirror Image,” about a girl who has a brain transplant after getting into a terrible car accident I am able to discuss Cartesian dualism and the basic ideas of the mind-body connection. I obviously avoid explaining these topics in such complex ways, but the subject matter is still there and they find the discussions fascinating, and I – more often than last year – find classes intellectually stimulating.

So things at school are generally going well. That being said, I’m finding life extremely busy and I’m already exhausted. I have many more responsibilities than I did last year, which is both an honour (one I’m not entirely sure I deserve) and a gigantic pain in my ass (one I probably do deserve).

It all happened very quickly. “So, who should coordinate this?” the principal would ask. “How about Mr. Nick,” he would suggest with zero opposition. “And what about that?” Silence. “Maybe…Mr. Nick.” I probably should have spoken up, but a part of me was looking forward to having some greater responsibilities, as I assumed they would provide me with the opportunity to do some of the things I have wanted to do since arriving here (this assumption has yet to pan out). The result is that I am now coordinating the Literary Committee, the English Subject Committee, the Creative Writers’ Club (which is also going to be publishing a monthly school newspaper this year), and all football in the school at all levels, both girls’ and boys’. On top of this I am trying to introduce a Student Counseling program at the school, which is complicated enough to create from scratch, but which became even more complicated once I realized that I was going to have to somehow balance the basic ethical guidelines of counseling with the somewhat rigid rules of the school. I still haven’t figured out how this is going to work, but I’m sure that – living in a Buddhist country – I will find the middle path. And lastly, for the time being at least, I am once again a class teacher, which means basically nothing to most of you sitting at home back in Canada, but basically means that I have a million extra responsibilities ranging from collecting students’ fees to filling in paperwork to distributing school uniforms to doing pretty much anything the administration asks of me regarding the forty students in my class.

So life is busy…busy but good. Like I said, I’m already exhausted, but I know that the cause of my exhaustion is also a source of contentment for me in this second year. I am a full time member of my community and I feel like I have made a place for myself here. I’m no longer treated as a guest (at least not in the awkward way), I’m treated just like every other teacher at the school. People have a better idea of what to expect from me this year and I them. I finally understand how the system works (as much as one can) and I have learned how to work within it and maneuver outside of it when necessary. I have made progress in figuring out how to teach my students not just what they need to know, but what I want them to know and what many of them long to know – how to identify the philosophies and psychologies that shape the human experience and connect all of us, regardless of age, religion, ethnicity or nationality. And this has perhaps been one of the greatest lessons I have learned in being here – that when all is said and done, despite being from a very different culture and a very different country in general, as an individual I am not so different from my friends, my colleagues or my students. In fact, we are all here for the same purpose: to do something meaningful with our time. Would my time here have been meaningful if I had come home at the end of last year? I’m still not entirely sure. But what I do know is that this second year in Bhutan has bought me more time to grow professionally and personally, and to touch and be touched by all the amazing people around me. What a privilege it is to be here.

2 comments:

  1. G'day Nick,

    I've just happened to stumble upon your blog and I’m rather glad I did! It makes for great reading and I’m thoroughly enjoying your posts.
    I’m a 21 year old Australian who was in Bhutan in 2009 and the start of 2010 working in Thimphu for an organisation called the Bhutan Youth Golf Association. I taught kids to play golf at Royal Thimphu Golf Course and at numerous schools throughout the country. Living in Bhutan was the most amazing experience of my life. The people and the country of Bhutan are simply beautiful and certainly left a huge mark on me, as I’m sure it has done to you.

    Soak up the time that you have in Bhutan as I know when I first came home, I took me a little while to fully comprehend that little fact that with Bhutan being such an out of the way destination, getting back there to see those who you’ve become so close with may never happen in the future.

    I’m back in Australia finishing off my university degree in English and am wondering if you would recommend applying for a teaching position with the BCF? Would love to hear your thoughts.

    Keep up the excellent blog and enjoy the rest of your time in Bhutan.

    Cheers

    Nick Turner

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  2. Hi Nick,

    I would most definitely recommend coming back here through BCF. I have loved my time here and as you mentioned, this country is just amazing.

    The only thing I would add is that you should keep in mind that life in Thimphu is very different than the life you might have in your posted location. You mentioned that you taught golf in schools all across the country, so that may have given you a better idea of what to expect. If you think you're up for a bit more of a challenge (which it sounds like you are) then I think BCF would be great for you.

    Hope that helps. Feel free to drop me a line and ask any other questions that might be on your mind.

    Thanks for reading the blog.

    All the best,

    Nick

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