Book Review 24 April, 2011 - To truly understand a people and their culture, learning the language can open up and take you down a path that didn’t exist before. It’s also, maybe, the only way that allows you to see the world from the eyes of the natives.
Perhaps this is why Linda Leaming, a middle-aged American, who comes to Bhutan – first to visit and then stays to teach English – finds herself “Married to Bhutan.”
She is very candid in her confession that her eagerness to learn Dzongkha, more than to teach English, makes her a better student than she is a teacher.
“Married to Bhutan” is Linda’s story of ten years in the country and how her love of it eventually leads her to marry a man who is quintessentially Bhutanese.
Maybe, because she knows the language, or has lived there long enough to start thinking like the locals, Linda seems to know things about Bhutan that sometimes makes no sense to foreigners/westerners. For example, the concept of time and the Bhutanese “refusal to be ruled by the clock,” is something that often perplexes or even irks outsiders. “In Bhutan, no matter what time you get there, you are right on schedule. When making an appointment for someone to come for a meal or to fix the plumbing, a Bhutanese will say ‘Come Wednesday,’ and that is specific enough. As long as the person shows up within the 48-hour window that is Wednesday and Thursday, everything is as it should be.”
It is in detecting these little idiosyncrasies that reveals Linda’s ability to understand and tolerate of a way of life other than her own. After all, she says, she comes from a world where there is “too much structure – too much insurance, litigation, unfulfilling work, fighting; too many credit cards, receipts, tax, forms, mortgages, traffic jams, obligations – and always enormous pressure and fear as a result.”
But Linda also points out things that don’t work in Bhutan. Her description of an incident in a classroom, where a young girl describes her “pink goat” only to find there is no room for dreams but realism. Linda summarises very well what is wrong with the Bhutanese education system.
Her observation of all things Bhutanese shows that she has penetrated Bhutanese culture at a deeper, esoteric level. Her description of locked telephones, the many cups of tea, sharing family albums with strangers to keep them entertained, why they love and venerate the crazy Drukpa Kuenley, and knowing what works (humility) and doesn’t – like “tooting your own horn”– explains why Bhutanese are the way they are. Her knowledge of Bhutanese folklore, religious mythology may also explain how she, an American woman from Tennessee, comes to intimately love a man, who speaks little or no English, cooks, cleans and even darns her stockings. And while he may do chores and, materially speaking, possess less than an average American, Linda is able to see how this illiterate artist has a better education (even it if it is in Dzongkha) than most men she has known. He is sophisticated and egalitarian, and has the qualities that any woman looks for in a man, no matter what culture he is from.
Being married to someone, who is so culturally different from oneself is full of tests and compromises. One such test occurs when Linda sees a dead baby floating in the Thimphu river. It is how Linda is able to make one laugh, while relating this macabre incident, as well as comprehend Namgay’s reaction to it, that makes her a good storyteller.
Married to Bhutan is an enjoyable read that tells you about the joys and trials of being married to a Bhutanese, which in Bhutan is being married not only to that person, but also to his/her family, community, and, in many respects, even the country.
Contributed by Sonam Ongmo