When asked why they want to teach in Bhutan a large number of our teachers say that they were first inspired by reading Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan by Jamie Zeppa. It’s been a few years since Jamie herself was a teacher in Bhutan; a lot has changed, but much remains the same, particularly the impact that foreign teachers are having on the education system in Bhutan. We asked Jamie for her thoughts, reflections and advice.
It’s been eleven years since Beyond the Sky and the Earth was published. What is your relationship to Bhutan now?
Bhutan changed me in profound ways. It’s like adding sugar to coffee, or gin to tonic: as it dissolves, it changes the larger whole. I can’t separate my time in Bhutan from who I am now, and that is something I remain grateful for on a daily basis.
In the years since you arrived in Bhutan as a WUSC teacher the country has undergone a lot of change- the country has recently adopted a new constitution- making it the youngest democracy on Earth, television was introduced, internet and mobile phones are readily available, and opportunities to modernize and industrialize are being explored. How different is Bhutan now, compared to when you first arrived in the late 80s?
I was initially struck by the material changes in Thimphu the last time I was there. Twenty years ago, we shrieked in delight if we found a box of corn flakes in a Thimphu shop, and now you can buy Froot Loops, a North Face vest, and a flat-screen TV. But the ethos of the country felt the same, especially the thoughtfulness and hospitality of the people.
What do you think are some of the most important challenges facing Bhutan as they come face to face with their changing society?
One of the biggest challenges of development is you can’t predict all the alterations that will grow out of each single change. Bhutan’s fantastic success in the education sector, for example, has produced a large number of youth not content to stay on the family farm. This leads to the rapid growth of urban centres as young people leave home to look for work, which in turn brings a new set of problems. Having a relatively small and still tightly-knit society, however, allows Bhutan to more easily trace the impacts of change and address some of the unintentional consequences more quickly than larger societies can.
You’re a member of The Bhutan Canada Foundation’s Board of Directors. Why do you think it is important to maintain the legacy of Canadian involvement in Bhutan by supplying teachers and supporting education in the country?
Canada and Bhutan have a unique and very focused relationship that goes back to the 1960s, when the Canadian Jesuit Father Mackey was invited into Bhutan to set up a secular school system. This long and successful relationship accounts for why Canada is among the very few nations that Bhutan has diplomatic relations with. We tend to think of international relations as one set of government buildings talking to another, but the Bhutan Canada relationship is not like that; it’s Bhutanese individuals talking to Canadian individuals. It’s not just a relationship on paper; it’s sincere and personal and frank, and it produces very tangible and mutually beneficial results, and this is what the Canadian government completely overlooked when it decided to drop Bhutan as a development partner. I believe the Bhutan Canada Foundation has to maintain this vital relationship and continue the work in education started forty years ago by Father Mackey.
How often do you do get back to Bhutan? What do you miss the most?
I’ve only been back to Bhutan twice in the last ten years. I miss the landscape the most: I miss seeing heart-wrenching, breath-stopping beauty every time I look out the window.
As a former teacher, you know the difficulty of moving half way across the world to teach in a country very unlike your own. What was the greatest challenge of being a teacher in Bhutan?
The first challenges for me were material: having to cook on a kerosene stove, running water that didn’t run, taking a bath in a bucket. But then these things became second nature, and the more amorphous challenges set it. One of the biggest was the difference between the Canadian and Bhutanese approach to education. Bhutan relied very much on rote learning, and even at Sherubtse College, students wanted to “by-heart” their lessons. At first I was discouraged when my attempts to introduce new models were met with bewilderment (and not a few failed tests), but I began to see that it was important to fit into the Bhutanese system, and that change happens slowly and organically and most often through the way you live your daily life and go about your work.
What was the greatest reward?
The greatest reward was the sheer delight of living and working with the Bhutanese, who are the loveliest people on the planet.
What are the essential qualities of teachers who will be successful in Bhutan?
Flexibility and patience and a good sense of humour for when things go wrong. If you don’t have those qualities when you arrive in Bhutan, you’ll certainly have them when you leave.
What advice do you have for those thinking about teaching in Bhutan?
Just do it! Going to Bhutan was the best thing I ever did. It was also the hardest thing I ever did, and there is an obvious connection between the two. Bhutan taught me the value of throwing myself headlong into an adventure that I didn’t quite feel ready for, and rewarded me beyond all expectations.
Beyond the Sky and the Earth has a huge fan base- in fact many of the people who apply to our program first heard about Bhutan from reading your book. What can we look forward to seeing next from you?
A novel, Every Time We Say Goodbye, will be published by Knopf Canada in 2011. It’s set in my hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, with nary a chili or mountain in sight. I will return again to Bhutan someday in my writing, but probably in fiction.