Sunday, October 30, 2011

How ‘Bhutanese’ Are You? – External vs. internal authenticity

(Nanako Ota) 

In Thimphu town, I often visit handcraft shops – looking at beautiful handcrafts never gets me bored. When I am with my Wheaton friends, people working for a shop usually stand or sit still, look at us steadily for maybe five to ten seconds, and smile. On the other hand, when I go to these shops alone, they have a totally different reaction; this is most likely because I look like a local Bhutanese person because of my Asian face. The interesting thing is that once I start speaking English, say, “Excuse me, how much is this?” they look surprised and tell me a price in a small voice. Looking at their reaction, I secretly say, “Yes, that is right, I am fake, I am not Bhutanese…” in my mind.

Similarly, when I walk alone in town, the local Bhutanese people often talk to me in Dzongkha. The other day, because we take a weekly Dzongkha class here at RTC, I proudly said, “Nga Dzongkha mi shi (I do not know Dzongkha).” The person made a very confused face expression, and left. Despite my excitement I felt that I could try my Dzongkha skill, I thought I did something incredibly embarrassing. Since then, I just say “I do not know Dzongkha, sorry,” in English with the clearest pronunciation that I can do.

It has been surprising for me that the local Bhutanese people in town and even some RTC students tell me, “I thought you were from Bhutan only,” because I still feel like I look funny in kira and do not act ‘Bhutanese’ enough. Until I started writing this blog entry, I was unaware of how I answer the same sentence to those who make “I thought you were Bhutanese” comment; I always reply, “If I could speak Dzongkha fluently.” I guess this instant reaction reveals how I am concerned with the language barrier I feel here, because I do know that I can be much closer to the people if I have enough fluency in Dzongkha.

I am sure that each of Wheaton students here has been experiencing different kinds of barriers that we feel between us (chilips) and them (locals). I bet one of the biggest barriers is our foreign appearance, which stands out no matter what. In my case, my Asian appearance has certainly helped me interact more with Bhutanese people in a way that they seem to feel more approachable to me.
However, I still feel puzzled with the fact that I am considered a Bhutanese woman due to my appearance, because I believe, ideally speaking, my ‘Bhutaneseness’ has to be present not only externally, but also internally. And I think that if my ‘Bhutaneseness’ came from inside me, that is the time when I finally could understand Bhutanese culture.

Because we Wheaton students think it is important to experience ‘Bhutanese ways of knowing and understanding their cultures,’ at RTC, we are strongly encouraged to wear kira and gho. I feel nice when doing the same thing as what other Bhutanese students do here; however, I also feel that if their culture can be understood by merely wearing a traditional dress, nothing will be complicated in this world. I do not know how much I can be Bhutanese only within four months in this program. Appearance is an easy first step to take to get closer to Bhutanese people. I, fortunately having my Asian face as an advantage, would like to challenge myself to be real Bhutanese in the last one month.

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