Like our recent post about Dave Green’s awesome music club at Pakshikha MSS, we’re thrilled to share a story from BCF Teacher Martin and his lovely wife Tara at Wangdicholing LSS in Bumthang, as he experienced his birthday celebrations in true Bhutanese style!
I knew already that birthdays were not a big thing here in Bhutan. Except for very young children, nobody really celebrates their Special Day as we do in Canada. In fact, several adults I’ve met don’t even know what day might be theirs, as their parents couldn’t write and kept no birth records. But this month, I witnessed a cultural fusion of East and West to celebrate my own birthday. On my walk to school today, several students stop in the dusty road to bow to me. I’m used to the daily, “Good morning, Sir”, but today I’m greeted with: “Happy Birthday, Sir,” “Best remains of the day,” and “Long life, Sir.” This must be through our neighbour’s daughter, who knew Tara and I were planning a dinner. She told a friend, who told her brother, and in true small town style, my birthday was becoming an event. So these greetings continue all day at school, and I feel so honoured, especially knowing they’ve put it on just for me. As I move through the school grounds, students I teach come to admire my new birthday gho, pinching me as they explain that it’s what you do for good luck with new clothes.
When I walk into my own class at 9:00, I hear a hush and a shuffle of desks as I step through the weathered doorway. My Class Captain pushes me back out, apologetically: “Sorry Sir, would you come back in again?” This time when I cross the threshold, he reaches above me with a bamboo stick and bursts a yellow balloon pinned to the lintel, showering me with flower petals. The class erupts with a vaguely familiar melody, standing to chant “Happy Birthday to you!”. I have to say, this is about the only time they’ve used the pronoun “you” with me; they’re trained to talk to their teachers in the third person….”Does sir…?”, “Would Sir…?”, “When could Sir…?”, etc.. I turn back to the rough chalkboard and notice it’s been covered with colourful birthday wishes in both English and Dzongkha. And they’ve taped balloons in various corners of the room, which really brightens up the chipped plaster and fading paint. It’s a party!
I can’t bring myself to start a lesson now, and this is no time for one of our pre-lesson meditations, so I ask them to be seated and hand out peanut butter cookies I was saving for later. Here at school, the only indication of birthdays is when primary children come into the staffroom offering candies. They move from teacher to teacher holding out a small bucket of Indian toffee, standing without a word in their school uniform, perfect replicas of the adults in their national dress. So the tradition here is all about giving rather than receiving. I’d prepared myself for this part by baking the night before.
After the cookies, the class asks me to sing, so I share a Québecois birthday song. Then two of my oldest grade 7 boys–“repeaters”, at 16 and 17 years old—come to the front of the room and sing two love songs in Dzongkha. One song is sad, but they’re both so beautiful, and obviously shared with pride. In Bhutan all singing, both traditional and pop, tends to have lots of controlled vocal decorations wrapped around simple melodies, and these boys have mastered the technique. The class is quiet, but cheers the singers on with expectant faces and grins. I am in awe of this spontaneous celebration and feel so honoured. I tell them this, but how could they really understand what it means to me? Most have never been farther than the next Dzongkhag, let alone another continent.
It’s another of those moments we privileged BCF teachers have, when we consider pinching ourselves to be sure we’re awake and really experiencing this. Sometimes my own culture at home by comparison seems so vague and diluted, lacking that strength of unity that is simply “how we do things” for children in Bhutan.
Photo Credits: Martin and Tara