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Diary from Bhutan: What to do, la

Type: Article

In her twelfth diary entry, Stephanie Earnshaw paints a linguistic picture of Bhutan by offering a few essential expressions in Dzongkha and some curious and matter-of-fact examples of Bhutanese English. She also visits a nunnery and a hermitage, and struggles to keep her weary college students interested.

 
college students

June means rain, exams and invigilation, so I've been busy trying to force-feed my students some English language skills. This is tricky as the college students have developed a habit of turning up for the register and then, once I’ve set the first piece of work and turned to write the next activities on the board, sneaking out. Sometimes I'll turn back from writing on the board and a third of the class will be gone. It seems they are suffering from end-of-term burnout, and all the teachers complain of this so it's not just my subject!

Everyone is also totally absorbed by the World Cup, which is as popular in the remote hidden Kingdom of Bhutan as it is anywhere else in the world! But even when I tried using an article on footballers' salaries they were happy to read the article but very reluctant to do the activities. Things are very grade-oriented here so if a class activity is not an assessed piece of work, they're not interested in doing it! I was also slightly surprised to find that almost all of the students thought that footballers deserved the high salaries they get 'because they work hard and have lot of pressure in match, Madam'. Perhaps it's because they can't really imagine what £50,000 a week looks like. I certainly can't.

So, it's almost a relief that the exams are finally here but many of them still have a long way to go before their English will be as 'international' as they want it to be. For the time being it's still definitely Bhutanese English, and I think I've learnt more of it than they have learnt of my British English! Here are a few examples of what I mean:

I asked a student why the school water supply only works between 2 and 4pm and he replied, 'Just like that only, Ma'am. What to do.'

Another student wanted to be excused from class and told me, 'Last night I took fooding at the canteen and today my stomach is paining.' His friend explained that he hadn't done his homework because he was too busy 'roaming' which is the Bhutanese way of saying 'hanging out with your mates'.

On another occasion I got a note from the college management stating, 'Please kindly read carefully the below and do the needful. The meeting arranged for Tuesday has been preponed to Monday, same time.' I quite like this – 'preponed' seems to be a logical opposite of postponed!

Bhutanese signpost

In general, you are addressed as 'Auntie' or 'Uncle' by anyone younger than you and with the honorific la on the end of the sentence by everyone else. If you ask for directions, you'll often get the answer, 'that side, la' meaning 'it's over there’, or 'down side, la' meaning ‘down there’. Everyone uses la to each other for greetings – ku zu zam po la (hello) and kadinche la (thank you). It's frequently attached to the end of every sentence if you're being really polite. The word la is part of driglam namzha, the Bhutanese code of conduct which governs public behaviour – everything from how to address your elders to how low to bow when you meet the King (to the ground) or a local dignitary (to your knees). It's very confusing for us chillips (foreigners) but I can at least remember to say la on the end of every sentence and I'm so used to it now I think I'll find it hard to give up when I leave, la.

To say ‘OK’ then it's tub and ‘goodbye/good luck’ is tashi delek, which I also enjoy, but my favourite saying is ya la ma which is used for expressing surprise or excitement. For example, when your taxi driver nearly crashes into a cow meandering randomly across the road, you might feel the need to exclaim, 'ya la ma!' The taxi driver will calmly swerve to avoid the obstacle and chuckle, 'Cows everywhere, what to do?'

Some Bhutanese speak very British or American English, depending on where they were educated, and like to have a laugh at their fellow citizens' expense. I got an email from a Bhutanese colleague listing funny things that have been written in the emails of Bhutanese office workers applying for leave. Since I got it from a Bhutanese I don't feel too bad in passing it on, even though I barely speak any Dzongkha myself ... Below are a few of my favourites. Also note the interesting use of commas.

  • Juneydrak hermitage
    from an employee who was organizing his daughter's wedding: 'as I am marrying my daughter , please grant a week's leave ...'
  • from a civil service employee: 'As my mother-in-law has expired and I am only one responsible for it, please grant me 10 days leave.'
  • a covering note: 'I am enclosed herewith ...'
  • an official reply from a civil service employee to a businessman: 'Dear Sir: with reference to the above , please refer to my below'
  • a prospective candidate's job application: 'This has reference to your advertisement calling for a Typist and an Accountant - Male or Female ... As I am both for the past several years and I can handle both with good experience, I am applying for the post.'

As well as enjoying, and battling with, Bhutanese English, I’ve taken a trip to Haa, a region three hours west of Thimphu. I visited a hermitage where the monk had been in retreat for four and a half years. Despite his meditation duties he was still happy to interrupt his concentration, feed us tea and biscuits and talk to us about the history of the place, including the footprint of the tantric goddess left in the hermitage's bare rock wall.

nuns

I also visited my first ever nunnery. Unlike the ubiquitous Bhutanese monasteries, these are rare. It was interesting that the nuns seemed to have less English than the young monks I've met in Bhutan and their lopens (teachers) were all monks, which left me wondering whether they lived at the nunnery. I don't know of any monasteries with a live-in female teacher (lope) but nuns are much less common in Bhutan than monks so perhaps that explains the need for male teachers. Apart from this, nuns have a similar lifestyle to monks, wearing the same clothes and following seemingly identical rituals. They just do things with a bit more giggling.

We arrived just in time for the puja (religious ceremony) they were holding for the birth anniversary of Guru Rinpoche, who established modern Bhutanese Buddhism. The Buddhist chanting with female voices had a different, urgent quality that I really enjoyed. We were warmly welcomed and, when the puja was over, given some of the food that had been donated as an offering by the local people (the altars are usually stacked high with fruit, crisps, cakes and other snacks). I was sent merrily on my way with two blessed packets of crisps and a blessed chocolate cake. On auspicious days, blessings and good deeds are worth hundreds of times more that on normal days, so we were super-blessed!

Juneydrak hermitage

 

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