Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Bhutan : Coming to terms with America

7 October, 2008 - In America you have to look up more often. That is if you are a male under 5 feet 5 inches. A thick-soled pair of hush puppies might take that frame to near average stature at home. Here, it does little to heighten physical presence.

Being vertically challenged can be a bit of a strain on the neck when making conversation and on the legs as well when rushing to the bus stop; everyone seems to get there quicker although you are literally running.

Visitors cannot help wondering whether this has something to do with the servings of food – they are enormous. You need both hands to hold a medium sized drink. So you stuff yourself in an attempt not to waste food as the brain works out the ngultrum-dollar conversion. This, according to some people, is one reason why the visitor from a developing country tends to gain the pounds, overtime. The food is very rich, best seen in widespread obesity.

Ordering a meal can be a mind-boggling experience. It’s hard to catch the accent and understand what is being said and a desperate attempt on your side not to look like a fool. But it does not take long for the Bhutanese belly to crave for a ‘real’ meal – rice and chili. It drives you to walk the extra mile looking for that chili, which can give that familiar sensation from entry to exit.

The urban American, in general, does not seem to spend a lot of time in the kitchen although most homes have spacious kitchens and bookstores sell numerous cookbooks. A lot of the food is readymade and many prefer to eat out on what Bhutanese may consider snack food.

If you are into cooking, you can get almost everything here that you get at home. Only that it does not have the same flavour and organic food costs a lot more. Like the food, the choices seem endless whether it is books, artistic and cultural performances or just sprays to reduce snoring. Deciding what to pick could eat up all your time. Equally amazing is the diversity of people. If you wanted to you could probably meet people from every country in the world in America.

It is also a society where there is no shortage of information. Keeping abreast of daily happenings is hard work; there is so much to read and the only difficulty in finding information is to know where to look.

America is also a verbal society. That human beings have two ears and a mouth to talk less and listen more is a logic that holds no ground in an American classroom. Students are expected to contribute to discussions and are graded on classroom participation. This requirement can be quite a challenge for the quiet Bhutanese, who believes that one should speak only when necessary or is cautious about expressing a different point of view. Here, silence is not golden. Here, we separate the idea from the person expressing it, say the Americans.

Words like “awesome”, “wonderful”, “excellent” are used so frequently, you cannot help thinking what is so “excellent” about handing in an assignment on time?

Yet again when commuting by public transport system people seldom talk to one another. It’s all about ‘my space’; nobody touches anybody, nobody looks at anybody. The ears are plugged to music and commuting time spent on reading classroom material, books or newspapers. Time is everything. Everybody is busy working to pay for college, house rent, buy essentials and things they fancy and plan a holiday.

At the same time, it is almost a ritual to be asked, “How ya doin’?” However, no one is interested in the reply. They have moved on before you can say anything. It is just a greeting.

Also very noticeable is the absence of hierarchy in the social structure. When the Pulitzer winning professor walks into the classroom, students do not stop munching on their snack or straighten up their sitting posture. Everything is done in such an informal manner it can throw you off, depending on where you come from. The only time you hear the word ‘sir’ is when someone asks if you have loose change to spare or when paying up in a store.

Here the consumer is king. You can return a product if do not like it without any hassle, the mailbox gets flooded with advertisements on the best shopping deals and something new and supposedly better is churned out every day. It’s all about “in the dollar we trust”.

But there is also creativity, innovation and new ways of thinking in an environment of dynamism and competition.

“We are defined by what we do” is how Americans identify themselves. It is all about “to do” by yourself and compete, values common to the western world in contrast to collectivism, cooperation and stability of Asian cultures.

Americans say that its senior citizens prefer to live alone because it would be against their belief system to have their children take care of them. About six percent of senior Americans live in old age homes.

What can be learnt from America? When it comes to aspects of behaviour and lifestyle, some of us have picked up well.

By Phuntsho Wangdi

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