Thursday, July 29, 2010

Blog #26: Wise Words

Being an English teacher, I have spent the better part of the school year thus far drilling essay-writing skills into my students’ young, malleable minds. Avoid writing in the first person. State your thesis and three supporting points clearly at the end of your introductory paragraph. Start each paragraph with a topic sentence that introduces your supporting point and links it back to your thesis. Provide examples to back up your supporting points. Some get it, some don’t. In order to help them I have written several essays as exemplars. When I finished teachers’ college I thought my days of writing essays had come to an end, but alas, a teacher’s job is never done, and sometimes we need to become students once again in order to teach.

In the spirit of essay-writing, and as a means of limiting this blog entry to a more reasonable length, I have decided to write an essay supporting the validity of a maxim for living in Bhutan that Keira, so brilliantly articulated. I apologize if I break one or two of the “rules of good essay-writing,” I only do so in order to inject a bit of colour into what may otherwise be a dull entry. Here goes…

Bhutanese culture is undeniably one of the richest, most unique cultures in the world. With the mighty Himalayan mountains isolating Bhutan from even its closest neighbours, the country remained entirely disconnected from the rest of the world up until the 1960’s. Even then, careful attention was paid to preserving and promoting Bhutanese culture. However, Bhutan is a rapidly developing country, and with development comes modernization, and often with modernization comes a dilution of culture. Mobile phones, television and the internet all play a pivotal role in shaping the future of Bhutan, for better or worse, and the result is a growing concern that Bhutanese culture is changing too much, too fast. There are, however, elements of Bhutanese culture that seem to be here to stay. Archery will most definitely remain the national sport for years to come; Buddhism isn’t going anywhere; hospitality will forever be one of the people’s top priorities. However, for a foreigner living in Bhutan there is one piece of Bhutanese culture that stands out among the rest: unpredictability. Due to the culture’s general disinterest in timing, its willingness to change schedules without providing any notification to the parties concerned, and the general futility of planning, a maxim for any foreigner living in Bhutan is “prepare for everything, expect nothing.”

People often want to know the time zone in which Bhutan is located. It’s not EST, and it’s not PDT or MDT, nor is it ICT or ISP (yes, I’m looking these up as I write this). The truth is I could tell you the time difference between Bhutan and Toronto, I could tell you other cities/countries that share the same time zone, but the only acronym that is at all relevant in Bhutan when it comes to time is BST. Oh! That’s Bhutan Standard Time, right??? Wrong (but you’re forgiven). The reality is that there are no three letters that when combined better capture the Bhutanese sense of humour or timing. After all, BST or Bhutan Stretchable Time is as big a part of Bhutanese culture as ema datsi or the gho.

It is not that the people choose to ignore timing or feel it unnecessary to set timelines for events – they do in fact schedule things meticulously; but there is a general understanding that whatever timing is proposed for this or that has a margin of error somewhere in the range of plus or minus three hours. Western culture, on the other hand, tends to allow for a five to ten minute margin of error when it comes to the adherence to schedules before bolts and steam begin to shoot out of people’s ears…or is that just in cartoons? And yet, people don’t seem even the slightest bit bothered by not knowing when things will actually happen.

For example, the Jigme Sherubling staff football team has become somewhat of a legend since acquiring one athletically gifted – not to mention handsomely chiseled – young, Canadian teacher. Being the gracious hosts that they are, they have invited teams from other schools to play matches on their rocky, mountain field numerous times. Typically these games would take place on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, as teams often have to travel for an hour to reach the school. On paper (which is rationed more strictly than rice in communist China) the game is likely scheduled for 2:30. School ends at 1:00 on Saturdays, which leaves just enough time to rush home for a quick lunch, change into one’s highly fashionable football uniform, and return to the field for a brief warm up. But by the time the day’s events make the leap from paper to practice the brief warm-up has evolved into an epic display of dazzling moves, thunderous shots and laser guided passes, all of this before the opposing team has even arrived. By the time they do arrive, usually somewhere between two or three hours late, the home team has often graduated from warmed-up to overcooked. By the time the match is finished and the losing team has taken the winners out for a beer (the standard wager), the whole ordeal has consumed at the very least 5 hours.

For that handsome and – did I mention – highly intelligent teacher, the time would be of no concern were his workload not so demanding. It is difficult – or maybe futile is the better word – to get frustrated when the culprits adhering to BST are strangers. But when your colleagues, people who are aware of the implications of wasted time, are committing the offence it has the potential to make one want to pull out their thick, silky-smooth hair (is that enough of the narcissism?).

During the school’s intramural track and field competition teachers were required to facilitate the event by recording times, heights and distances. The responsibilities were divided equally among the teachers so that each teacher was responsible for supervising only one event on one of the four days. So on a Tuesday afternoon, that charming Canadian teacher was scheduled to supervise all of the track events for Druk house, one of the four school houses. Being the responsible young man that he is, that teacher asked the organizer of the event what time he should report for his duties, to which the organizer assuredly replied 4:00. So you can imagine the teacher’s surprise when 4:00 came and went, when 4:30 whizzed by, and when the clock struck 5:00 and his events had yet to begin. You can imagine this calm and collected teacher’s exasperation when he was told at 5:00 that there wasn’t enough time for the events to take place before evening study, so they would carry over to the following day. Not to worry that hours of precious time had been wasted standing around waiting – hours that could have been spent correcting essays in the kind of detail that has been asked of the teachers or planning lessons for the following day’s classes. It’s only time, and time in Bhutan is stretchable; hence, one must prepare for everything, but expect nothing.

Though BST does force one to prepare for anything but expect nothing, it alone is hardly cause for the birth of such a pithy maxim. Bhutanese culture’s willingness to change schedules at the drop of a hat without notifying anyone prior to doing so is truly enough make one want to abandon the civilized world of human beings and live with the animals where things make sense.

At the beginning of the year all teachers are asked to create a block schedule, a calendar of the school year indicating exactly what one will be teaching during any given week. The block schedule is just one of the many organizational documents being required by the Ministry of Education in order to improve accountability and professionalism in the field of Education. Sounds good, right? Well it is in theory. Actually it is in practice as well…in most countries. But in a country in which a six-day work week is all of a sudden transformed into four days, the block schedule would better serve as toilet paper than as an official document. How can a teacher possibly follow a schedule when days of the week are vanishing with absolutely no warning, like Khaling’s sun in the mid-summer monsoon? Yet, during the teachers’ mid-term reviews they are asked to submit their block schedule and all lesson plans so that the documents can be cross-referenced in order to monitor progress. This is obviously a headache for the teachers, but at the end of the day education isn’t about the teachers, it’s about the students, right?

There is such a strong emphasis on academic results at many schools in Bhutan – a consequence of a highly competitive education system in which there are fewer positions available in school than there are school-aged children. Apart from the standard school day, students are forced to study for one hour from 6:30 to 7:30 a.m., one hour from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., and one hour from 7:30 to 8:30 pm. In the weeks leading up to exams any and all extra-curricular programs are cancelled in order to provide students with additional time to study. All of this extra study time is superb, however, it is no replacement for class time in which the teacher can guide the students through difficult concepts and students can ask teachers questions. Of all the class time, one of the most precious periods is exam review week: the week in which teachers reduce a term’s worth of material into a more manageable package of information and allow students to ask questions or raise concerns about said material. So a responsible teacher – an organized one – would allow for enough time to provide students with one week of review. In fact, a well organized teacher would also carefully plan the content and/or concepts to be reviewed on each day. A well organized teacher might plan the week so that they can use the final day of classes to provide their students with some strategies/tips for writing the exams and allow for any last minutes questions/concerns. A well organized teacher would also probably confront his/her superiors when rumours that the last day of school is going to be cancelled begin to circulate. A well organized teacher would continue to follow their schedule, praising themselves for doing such a great job managing their time after their superiors assure them that class will proceed as usual. A well organized teacher will want to gouge out to their eyes and tear out their fingernails one by one when they arrive at school on the final day of the term only to discover that class has been canceled and those important last minute reminders that they had so desperately wanted to provide their students with will remain unspoken and unheard. A well organized teacher should prepare for everything, but expect nothing.

BST – or the Bitterness Susceptibility Test – and the potential for one to miss important changes in schedules if one is foolish enough to surrender to the body’s urge to blink or sneeze can be trying of one’s patience, but there’s nothing quite like a logical paradox to make one want to run for the hills (of which there are many to choose from) and subscribe to the foreigners’ maxim. If you don’t believe me, riddle me this: How do you plan something in a country that doesn’t allow for you to plan things but requires you to plan them? Enough said.

Futile is the only word to describe any effort to plan things in Bhutan. For example, summer vacation is a time when everyone wants to get out of Khaling. It’s not that the town doesn’t have its charm; it’s more that all the town has is charm…and potatoes. So at the final utterance of the words “pencils down” there begins a mass exodus of students and teachers. In order to avoid the mass exodus and to account for the long and arduous journey to Lhuntse, one teacher opted to take several days leave and depart from Khaling two days prior to the end of the term.

Or at least that was the plan. He packed, he cleaned his house, he got all of his work in order, and on a Monday morning, through a light mist of rain he lugged his heavy bags into town and waited for the bus. He waited...he waited some more…and then even more. The bus was nowhere to be seen. Through a variety of ludicrous hand gestures and pantomimes he managed to ask the Nepali restaurant owners in town whether they knew if the bus was coming (the bus usually stops at their restaurant for lunch), to which they replied a noncommittal “not sure.” In all fairness the previous two days had seen almost 48 hours of non-stop torrential downpour so the road conditions were not great, but at the same time neither was the flow of information. So he waited…and waited…and waited…until at about 5:00 he realized that if the bus did finally arrive in Khaling, it wouldn’t arrive in Mongar until 1:00 in the morning at the earliest, and that thought was more than he could bear. So what did that Canadian teacher do? He lugged all of his heavy bags back up to his apartment through what had become a steady shower of rain. He wasn’t going anywhere that day.

The next day was blue skies and sunshine so that brave young man once again prepared for his early departure. He packed, he cleaned, he got all of his work in order, and on that Tuesday morning, he lugged his heavy bags back into town and waited for the bus. He waited…he waited some more…and then even more, until at about 2:00 he decided to ask the restaurant owners about the bus once again. Before he had even made it through his first carefully choreographed movement the hotel owner stopped him and said, “Not sure.” But by 4:00 the teacher was quite sure and once again he found himself retracing his steps back up towards his apartment.

The next day marked the beginning of the exodus, and though the Canadian teacher still had his heart set on traveling to Lhuntse to meet up with two of his Canadian friends, it no longer seemed practical or realistic. Bus tickets were no longer readily available. Actually, quite the opposite was true. Westbound tickets for the remainder of that week had been reserved weeks if not months in advance due to the sudden increase in the number of people trying to leave Khaling and the number of buses remaining constant. So instead of reaching Lhuntse before the term had officially come to a close, that Canadian teacher found himself trapped in Khaling well into the break with little idea of how he might escape. It was almost as if he had been punished for his desire to plan his summer vacation, but at the same time he was being punished for not having planned his summer…vacation!?!? In his naïveté he had prepared for everything and expected something – he had attempted to plan something, forgetting that Bhutanese culture doesn’t actually allow for planning…except when it’s required…sometimes. How could he be so foolish? It obviously makes far more sense to prepare for everything and expect nothing.

Although there are countless aspects of Bhutanese culture that could charm the pants off of a priest (not that that seems quite as hard to do these days), its unpredictability is not one of them. Bhutan Stretchable Time, though a charming concept in theory, can result in one feeling as if they are spiraling through a dimensionless vortex when put into practice. And although there are people who might think that showing up to work only to realize that work has been cancelled would be a nice surprise, they fail to recognize that the result is that one has to try to fit a whale in a gold fish’s bowl; the amount of work doesn’t change, just the amount of space in which one has to fit it. Lastly, imagine the torment that comes from identifying the futility of making plans, but being forced to make plans regardless, and then having those plans fall apart faster than an M. Night Shyamalan movie. As much fun as all of that sounds, one would be better served by removing the fork that they have impaled into their own thigh, taking a deep breath, and simply adopting the foreigner’s maxim for living in Bhutan: prepare for everything, expect nothing.

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