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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The King of Bhutan's Birthday Celebration

Front Stage with the teaching staff looking out at the children

Ready for the celebration...

During the third week of February I shouted, “What?  We get the day off to celebrate the King of Bhutan’s birthday to kick off the Losar (Bhutanese/Tibetan New Years)!  Oh my!  I love birthdays, especially a King’s birthday.”   This was the beginning of a huge adventure as well as many fumbles being immersed in a culture that is so alien to most Westerners. 

The adventure started with my Bhutanese friend, Sonam Choden, informing me that I had to look extra spectacular for the King’s birthday.  I think that she was hinting my Western clothes wouldn’t do because she insisted dressing me up in one of her best kiras.  Then we headed to the multipurpose facility at our school along with all the students and teachers for a few hours of celebration.  You could just feel the energy of excitement coagulating in the atmosphere and I knew that this would be a day I would never forget. 

Sonam and I got the best seat in the house to film the festivities.  Sitting front center on the stage floor along with all the other teachers I looked out at all the students sitting at their lunch tables with their white paper prayer books.  I felt like I was gazing out into the night sky at shining stars feeling connected to something greater than life itself.  Several monks sat near me on the stage with incense and cylinders getting ready to chant prayers.  In the middle of the multipurpose hall, I could see a table displaying the King’s picture surrounded by endless rows of little butter lamps.  The air was filled with the distinct smell of incense from teachers walking around fanning every square inch with the trailing smoke.  At first, I wasn’t accustomed to this strong smell and at times it consumed my lungs, which would cause me to cough and I tried to covertly cover my nose with my sleeve. 
Students at the lunch tables with their prayer books

Then out of nowhere, my principal surprised me by calling me down to offer a sign of respect to the King’s picture for his birthday.  I drug Sonam with me to capture the moment on film and for support because I had no idea what this would look like.  My principal handed me a white scarf and told me to offer it to the picture of the King.  The offering is difficult to explain, but this is what I perceived that I was supposed to do. I was to hold onto a neatly rolled scarf, gracefully toss it in the air toward the picture, which was in front of tons of burning butter lamps and then somehow glide the scarf back into my hands.  I was also instructed not to let go of one end while throwing it, so it doesn’t land in the blazing burning butter lamps.  Additionally, once I magically pulled the scarf back across my hands, I was to raise it up to the picture and take a bow (this is the offering).  “Ugh say what? How? Right now?” is what I kept mumbling to Sonam and she looked scared for me. 

I watched a few people in front of me offer the scarf so elegantly in a single motion that it looked like a smooth, classical dance step.  I knew that I wouldn’t look like those who went before me and I started to feel a little nervous as all eyes were on me.  I thought maybe I should have practiced this art form of offering a scarf above a hundred burning lamps.  Oh well, no time to worry now as someone nudged me to the front and placed the rolled scarf into my hands.  I ended up throwing it wildly like I was throwing a party streamer across the room.  When it hit the picture, I was so worried that it would land in the butter lamps and catch on fire, that I yanked it back with such a force you would of thought I was handling a fire hose.  Then I scrambled to straighten the scarf out and with shaky hands I raised it to the roof instead of towards the picture.  Lastly, I took a relieving bow.  I was anything but elegant.  Although I didn’t catch the scarf on fire, I did manage to make a big “boo-boo” or “oh noooooo” mistake at the very end.  Sometimes it just wouldn’t be as fun if I knew how to do everything!

Sonam, My Bhutanese Friend
After I thought that I had just turned into a pro offering the white scarf, I lit some butter lamps to offer a good wish prayer for the King.  I looked at Sonam who was filming me and I proudly smiled into the camera because I did it without catching the scarf on fire!  Then I innocently gave a few puffs to blow out the incense stick that I used to light the butter lamps and that’s when I noticed Sonam’s face go from beaming to horror.  I knew that I did something wrong as she quickly took the camera off of me and mouthed “NOOOOOO, STOPPPP!”

I thought, Oh crap, what am I doing wrong?  Then someone snatched the incense stick away from me and Sonam pulled me away from the altar.  She whispered to me that blowing out the incense stick was bad manners and that you should never put your mouth or breath on anything sacred.  Whoops, this would be the first of many mistakes learning about Buddhism and Bhutanese culture.  Most of my fluffs we giggle at, but this one we couldn’t openly laugh at.  It was a very BAD slip-up!  DON’T BREATH ON ANYTHING OR ANYONE SACRED!  Ok, Got it! Hmm I know that I learned that in orientation, but no one told me that included incense sticks.  Yikes, so much to learn!

Happy Birthday to His Majesty!
Thank goodness everyone seems to understand that as a foreigner I am in a constant state of learning.  No one ever gives me dirty looks or says rude comments; instead they educate me or laugh with me.  Thus, Sonam told me no big deal, you didn’t know… and we went back to the stage.  The energy of the room was so tingly with magic and love that I quickly forgot about the mistake.  I couldn’t even think about my silly error if I wanted to because I was now zeroed in on the chanting of the Buddhist prayers that had started without any warning.  The prayers were for all sentiment organisms and I didn’t have to understand the words to know that they were sacred as well as filled with enchantment.

The way that the chorally sung prayers bounced off the walls and echoed from the tall ceilings left me feeling like each note somehow was entering every cell of my body.  I could feel tiny specks of vibrations on my skin and chills ran down my spine.  I also felt as light as a grain of sand and I would have thought that I was invisible if all the students weren’t staring at me with wide, curious eyes.  As I was filming, gazing through my camcorder screen staring back at them with even greater curiosity, the saddest thought creped upon me like a dark thundercloud on a sunny day:  One day I will be watching this film back in America so far away from these wonderful people and Bhutan.  This moment will pass and my time will eventually end in Bhutan…all I will have is this tape to relive it… today will eventually be a distant memory.  No, I don’t want this moment to ever end.  How will I ever leave my new friends and this magical place I now call home…

I could picture myself back in America cleaning my room while listening to the chanting of this tape on my television.  I could see myself doing the mundane and feeling remorseful for not being able to experience just once more the background noise of chanting.  This was the first time that it hit me that my time here is temporary and all these unique experiences will come to an end one day.  Right then and there I almost started crying about not wanting this moment to ever end.  I entered a war with myself trying to fight back the tight marble of tears that was lodged in my throat so I wouldn’t scare everybody.  I had to go as far as counseling myself in my head saying that I have months before I have to worry about such thoughts.  It took me several minutes, but I managed to push the heart aching thoughts out of my mind, swallow the boulder of tears and focus on the beauty of the now

Awe, a memory!
Finally, a few hours later, when the whole thing was over, Sonam and I went outside and she helped me make a little documentary about the King’s birthday.  Although I looked joyful talking into the camera, there was a little sadness dancing around my heart knowing that there will be a day that I look back at the film and miss that moment.  The day was truly a keepsake memory that I will never forget as it was just beginning… to be continued (filming rare black neck cranes, dancing at an archery match and my huge misunderstanding taking my first stone bath).  

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Rainbow Wall

At times, my fifth grade students are my greatest teachers who educate me about their school procedures, such as the cleaning of our classroom.  The first week of school, they informed me that we were supposed to tidy up our classroom and that the principal would be checking.  So every student took the initiative to bring some rags that were cut from a variety of fabrics.  When they arrived to school one morning, they waved around their square tattered rags of every color imagined indicating that they were ready to scrub down the class.  Now, looking back at this moment, I burst into laughter because neither my students nor I foresaw the consequences that were about to take place from those cursed, colorful rags.
Extra Soapy Water

Before we started the cleaning frenzy, we examined our white walls that weren’t too bad.  We identified the areas that needed the most cleaning like the front bottom wall that looked like it had been rained on.  Not only did I want a clean class for my students, but I was hoping that we could impress the principal by having the cleanest class in the school.  So I got my students all pumped up to clean.  We filled a bucket with extremely soapy water and I released them to start dipping their rags into the water to scrub the walls or desks.  I was so immersed in taking pictures of this cleaning bonanza that I didn’t notice that my students hands were turning green, blue, red, orange, purple, etc.  They were so eager to clean that it also took them a few minutes to realize that their hands were slowly turning the color of their rags. 

 Oh Why me?
It wasn’t until I heard the students gasping “Uughhh Ohhhh” that I noticed the walls, desks and floors were now a rainbow of colors.   Apparently, their colorful rags started bleeding its dye when they dipped them into the soapy water and now the water was a bizarre color of paint.  I jumped on a stool, threw my arms out and screamed, “AHHH EVERYONE FREEZE!”  Everyone froze and with worried expressions we just stood in silence for a minute staring at the assortment of colors all over our once white walls.  I thought, Oh why me? So much for having the cleanest walls in the school!  Maybe it will come off!  Oh God, I hope the principal doesn’t kill me for ruining these walls.  What should I do? How much is white paint?
The Before and After

Finally, I wiped the horrid expression off my face.  “No problem! We can fix this,” I said with half enthusiasm.  From the stool, I ordered them to wash their hands outside, dump the weird color of water and refill it with clean soapy water as fast as they could.  Next, I told the students with white rags and scrubbing brushes to use the clean water to scrub the display of wacky colors off the walls before the principal passed by.  Now we all worked taking turns using a few white rags/brushes to scrub the walls, desks and floors trying desperately to remove the various colors of dye.  It seemed like we had been scrubbing forever when we finally gave up.  Although the walls weren’t nearly as vibrantly stained as before, they definitely weren’t white anymore and it looked liked someone had puked all over them. 

As they say in Bhutan, “What to do?”  So I confessed about the mess to the principal and I asked him if I could repaint it.  He was very understanding and actually had a good laugh over it.  Since grades 4-10 compete for cash prizes on who has the best looking classroom, my students and I were determined to re-paint our now yucky looking walls.  It took us four days of our free time to paint and stain the floors, but we finally did it.  I can’t claim that we now have the best looking walls, but I’m just relieved that we no longer have the multicolored stains that hunted me in my sleep. 

Moreover, I have learned a valuable lesson when cleaning a classroom in Bhutan:  When asking students to bring rags for cleaning make sure you tell them to bring white rags as opposed to colored rags, which might leak the dye and ruin whatever you are cleaning.  As the saying goes, you live and you learn!

The pictures below tells the story as it happened in chronological order:  

Wow, kids this wall is very dirty!
Lets clean it and have the cleanest class in the school
Yeah the principal will be so proud of us

Children, I think that's enough soap 

Who's going first?  The green rag is off to wipe the walls
Thank you green rag...
Next?  Here comes the blue and purple rag...

Everyone is following directions... good job kidos!  This is Fun!

Ahh Freeze!  Oh My! What happened to the walls?

Oh I see!  All the rags are bleeding their dye color. Hmmm
What to do?

White rags and brushes only
hurry up and scrub the dye off the walls

Teacher, it won't come off!
Scrub harder!  



  Lets repaint the walls now with some interesting paint
Painting half of the wall

Painting is fun

Wash the floors
No more dirty walls
Wash the dye stains off the floors
All done for the day.  Move the tables back in.
End with a picnic!  We all sampled 16 different curries.

Ninth graders came to help us

Happy Kids

Yes, I get dirty too!  Scrub scrub scrub

Scrubbing paint off the door 
Cleaning our tables to bring them back inside
Hard Workers


Staining our floor a dark red
Stain, Stain, Stain
Sonam is the last one working to make the floor pretty
Oh noo now our hands are stained a dark red.  It never ends...

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Magic of a Rock Collection

My friend Sonam and I the first week of school
"SONAM, I don't understand what's going on? What exactly is an auspicious date?  I thought that all school's in Bhutan started on February 15th, so why aren't we teaching?"  These were just a few mystifying questions that I asked the only Bhutanese teacher I felt comfortable admitting to that I was completely confused at times.  Even after she answered my questions, sometimes my brain was so exhausted trying to figure out a new culture all the time that I would give up and I would nod or smile at her answers as if I knew what she was talking about.  However, I did know one thing and that was I would figure it out as I went.  On the other hand, I didn't realize that this was going to make some hilarious learning as well as a need for some spiritual guidance to take over my days.

So here is a quick synopses of what I eventually understood:  Although all teachers and students attended school in Bhutan on February 15th, each school wouldn't be conducting lessons until they got their auspicious date from an astrologer to start teaching, which our astrologer advised us to start on February 27th.  What's an auspicious date?  An auspicious date is a forecast of a favorable or lucky date.   Therefore, until our auspicious starting date teachers had to report to school to supervise cleaning, collect fees, pass out textbooks, etc. but the teachers weren't expected to conduct lessons.   Since I am the class teacher of fifth grade, I was to supervise my fifth graders until February 27th.  Then I would start my teaching schedule and begin lessons for fifth grade English, two ninth-grade English classes and all library periods for k-6th grade (yes, I'm like a librarian).  Being a class teacher of fifth grade means that I am responsible for all the "business" of that class and they are like my babies.   

So that first week I was glued to my fifth graders and I was a little on the confused side about what was going on.  Outside my class window, I observed children scattered everywhere and some roamed around freely; I got a steady stream of curious kids peeking in the windows wanting a glimpse of what this Western teacher was doing.  I never knew when lunch was starting or ending as well as when the school day was over until I would notice that the school became eerie quiet and I would pop my head out the window to discover it was a ghost town.  Then I would excuse my fifth graders, which seemed like it was at random times everyday.  So I did what always works best for me:  I allowed my heart to guide the crazy days.  Here's how the first day went:

After being stuffed up in the classroom all morning with not one teaching supply/material, an idea came to me like lightening striking my head (guidance from above).  I started telling them about my rock and mineral collection that I have in the States.  I became so animated and passionate describing it that they all stared at me in amazement.  After I got them all worked up about rocks, I announced to them that we would start our very own rock collection and their eyeballs widened in excitement.  We hurried to the soccer field and started looking for the most unique rocks we could possibly find. 

Proud Owner of
  the Heart Rock
(curious kid
behind her)
Heart-Shaped Rock
On the field, my students ran up to me with such happiness over a rock that was sparkly or in the shape of a heart.  Before I knew it I had "one of a kind" rocks being shoved in my face from every direction.  I would hold up their rocks to the sky and gasp in amazement like I had just been handed a 20-carat diamond.  My enthusiasm was contagious and everyone would gather around me gasping in astonishment.  Then they would scurry around to discover more to gawk over.  I would hear the students saying things like “Look at this one it looks like a car.  Do you think that this rock is unique? Is this a volcano rock?”  I was thrilled to observe that there was a full-blown dialogue being taking place that went on and on.  They were talking to me in English as well as with each other without any hesitation.  It was also funny watching them get all jazzed up over rocks they had probably stepped on a thousand times, but never noticed.

A handful of rocks from our rock collection
We got back to class with a couple dozen of worthy looking rocks just in time for lunch.  When I got back from lunch, I was surprised to find them still huddling around their rocks talking about them.  They continued the lesson even when I was gone.  WOW!  So I ended the first day of school with them presenting their rocks.  Although a few of them struggled finding the right words to describe their rocks while presenting, they all tried their best.

Considering that I had an amazing first day of school with no teaching supplies, I am very optimistic about the school year.  This reminds me to continue to stay positive and to carry the love I feel from the morning assemblies into my classrooms, which makes it easier to receive some spiritual guidance.  Moreover, since my students have a great sense of humor, a willingness to talk to me in English and a drive to participate, I know that creative thinking/higher level thinking is going to be achieved in this simple classroom in Bhutan.  I love them already and I feel so proud to be their English Language Arts teacher.  Please wish us the BEST!

Practicing Raising our Hands for a Year of Participating

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bhutanese Students and A Western Teacher

How did I end up in Bhutan not knowing what my teaching schedule was going to be or what Bhutan's schools were like?  This was the question that kept ringing in my head on my first day of school in Bhutan.  As I walked to my class to meet my fifth grade students, I wondered how well they spoke English, what exactly would I do with them since I had no school supplies yet and what did my classroom look like.  I pondered about what I would do if we couldn't understand each other since their first language is Dzongkha or the local language, Bumthap.  Even though they had been learning English since kindergarten, I didn’t know if their English was strong enough to engage in reading comprehension, writing, etc.  I had no clue what to expect or even how long the day would be.  However, I was still engulfed in a cloud of love over the morning assembly that these thoughts had little effect on me.  Nevertheless, this was a day of many surprises...

The first surprise came on my way to class.  Whenever I would pass by a student of any age, they would bow to me and say good morning madam.  This made my eyes bug out of my head like a cartoon character.  I couldn't imagine anyone bowing to me all year.  Finally, as I was approaching my class, I could see all my fifth graders beautiful, brown faces pressed against the windows waiting in anticipation for the lady in pants.  A couple of students were even posted outside as “the look out students” and when they saw me coming, they swiftly ran into the classroom shouting in Dzongkha that I was near.  In an instant, I could see the class scrambling away from the windows and I could hear a stampede of feet tramping to their tables.
My Cute Fifth Graders

Next, I entered the building and came upon two narrow shutter doors.  I could hear the kids whispering up a ball of excitement behind the mysterious doors.  The way the shutters opened up into the classroom, made me feel like I was walking into something grand and I was.  As I stepped in, twenty-five kids eagerly stood up and in sync shouted, “GOOD MORNING MADAM!!!” (Madam is for married females, so they should have clearly said Miss, but they usually refer to all women as Madam). They remained standing up giggling and looking at each other with blushing cheeks until I realized that they wouldn’t sit down unless I gave them permission.  After I told them to please sit down, they chorally responded, “THANK YOU MADAM!!!”  Hmmm how respectful, I thought, I think that I can get used to this. What a huge change…


I noticed that they were sitting on little square wooden stools and I wondered if their backs or butts ever hurt.  Two to three kids shared a white rectangular table.  My attention was drawn to a green chalkboard on the wall.  I thought, Wow, I haven’t used one of these since I was in elementary school.  Why didn't I bring a chalk holder to write with?  I started to cringe remembering my grade school teachers covered in chalk and having to clean chalky erasers.

Sitting on Wooden Stools
I went on to introduce myself. I talked slowly with my hands, drawing pictures on the chalkboard with the tiniest, crumbliest chalk, which a student found abandoned on the floor from last year.  As I babbled on, I wondered if they were comprehending my English.  So I made a few jokes and yup, they sure understood me as they bursted into laughter.  At that moment, I knew that we were going to have a fantastic year together because they have a great sense of humor and we were already sharing lots of laughs.  Joyful kids are so easy to teach and laughter makes learning fun!  After my introduction, I taught them a few games that require no materials and it was a great ice breaker.  I occasionally play these games with my American students and I don’t know what it is about Heads Up Seven Up and Four Corners, but kids love these games.
Hard Workers
While modeling and explaining the games, I was please to discover that they could follow my instructions in English.  However, I had been worried about their English speaking skills because I was told that my greatest challenge would be creating a dialogue in the classroom.  Others told me that the students are more accustomed to teacher center learning instead of student center learning, so they struggle with creative thinking and they tend to be a little shy, especially if their English isn’t so perfect.  As the day continued, I became very optimistic that this would be an easy challenge to overcome over the school year...who knew that a rock collection could bring so much joy and creativity...(to be continued)