The People of Bhutan

Posted on December 10, 2010

My third point about Bhutan.

The people are simply put, amazing. However this really says nothing. One finds nice people all over the world. Though some cultures do seem to overflow with them, while others don't, I'm a firm believer in the decency of people and given half a chance it's not a difficult task to ferret out the good in people everywhere. Of course there are some jerks and evil people, but I think they are probably found in the same small numbers everywhere.

Bhutanese want or need nothing from you, there's never an agenda behind the conversation. Wait, I take that back, they often ask you to e-mail them a copy of the picture you just took.

Bhutanese are a humble but proud people. Interesting paradox, but I think never having been conquered there is no sense that they were ever anything but their own masters. People are friendly and open, at the same time never obsequious or down trodden and never arrogant. Walk the streets and as you encounter people say hello, or better yet 'kuzuzangpola' and the response is a face that melts into a lovely smile. We smile in the USA, though not this way anymore, excepting children and rare unguarded moments, our smiles lack the sincerity of Bhutanese smiles. If the world had a Miss Smile competition, I'd be putting my money on the Bhutanse contestant. It's open, sincere, trusting and friendly all at once. The smile itself seems reward enough to your simple greeting, and the encounter could very well end there, leaving you feeling satisfied. Yet it often evolves into a conversation, either short or long with your new acquaintance. As virtually all Bhutanese are adept at English it's easy to converse, and the exchanges that result are so genuine, sophisticated and interesting I find I don't want to move on. In all too many places where we travel, the locals want something from us, our money (from commerce or outright gift, it's called begging) or sometimes even worse, they want our approval (the white man imprimatur) as they denigrate their own country and tell you how much they admire America. Bhutanese want or need nothing from you, there's never an agenda behind the conversation. Wait, I take that back, they often ask you to e-mail them a copy of the picture you just took.

You find yourself in fascinating conversation under the most casual circumstances. I've never felt trapped in conversation, wanting to flee. To the contrary, I've been late for events as I could not pull myself away. Mostly you find these extraordinarily nice and interesting people are willing to talk with you, and the exchange seems so even keeled, there's never a rub. They thank you for visiting their country, as if it were an honor for them, rather than a privilege on our part to be admitted. Many of these people have never been outside of Bhutan, yet have a grasp of geopolitics that puts most of my countrymen to shame. Their understanding of the world and how it works is impressive, and their willingness to share their ideas and thoughts is generous and genuine. Meet other foreigners in Bhutan, they mostly rave about the country, but reserve special emphasis for the people.

Yes the Bhutanese are different. While a poor country (officially one of the 10 poorest in the world) the wealth is spread pretty evenly, and the figures used do not account for the fact that many, if not most people are still on the land growing their own food and living in the 3 story house they or their ancestors built. By criteria as money in the bank or income earned it's little, and the days may be full of hard work, there's still enough food, shelter and clothing to keep them out of the misery so common in the developing world. Add a government policy that guarantees clean drinking water, electricity, free school and health care to all, giving Bhutanese the feeling that their government is looking after them. To quote Richard Reismann who joined a recent trip "this is the richest poor country I've ever seen."

Call me shallow, but I feel the need to say these are a very handsome people. Criminally handsome many of them. Were they in the west which puts such emphasis on appearance they might be intolerable. Maybe not, I've never met anyone with an attitude about who they are or how they look. Permit to to brag and say I've met several members of the royal family and find them completely down to earth and likable.

Probably no discussion of the people would be complete without mentioning the Nepalese in Bhutan. Twenty percent of the population, immigrants within the past hundred years from Nepal. Nepal is to the west and shares no border with Bhutan, but impovershed Nepalese have been leaving their land, looking for land and oppurtunities elsewhere. Sparsely populated southern Bhutan presented no impediment to their peaceful settlement. They also settled in neighboring Sikkim, a small country between Bhutan and Nepal. By the 1950's the Hindu Nepalese outnumbered the Buddhist Sikkimese, and in 1975 the Indians invaded and annexed Sikkim overnight. Probably the quietest invasion, and one that met with little press coverage and no outcry. The Sikkimese and Bhutanese royal families are related, and this event made Bhutan nervous, seeing how easily a neighbor lost its sovereignty. In the late 1980's Bhutan asked its Nepalese residents to prove residence since 1958, or depart. Resentment grew on both sides of the issue and as many as 80,000 ethnic Nepalese fled to refugee camps in Nepal. Those who stayed but had a family member flee were seen as suspect.

Bhutan has made strenuous efforts to identify and repatriate those who are seen as actual Bhutanese citizens. In Bhutan now you meet many Nepalese (sometimes easily identified as they look Nepali), though many look (to me at least) like every other Bhutanese, and they will identify themselves as Southern Bhutanese. They are every bit as friendly and open as any other Bhutanese you'll meet. Many will tell you they are not completely happy with things in Bhutan, though in the same breath will also point out this is their home and they have no intention of leaving. The oppurtunities afforded them in Bhutan are much better than in Nepal. They permeate the society and are active in business and politics and seem outwardly to be an integral part of Bhutanese society. It might appear I'm an apologist for the government of Bhutan but I think Bhutan deserves credit for trying to fairly solve a problem not entirely of its own creation, and attempting to integrate its ethnic minorities into the fabric of society. The issue of ethnic minorities in other Asian countries is seldom addressed and their status is often dismal, as they are excluded by active or passive discrimination or face outright persecution. To put the subject in a different perspective, ask Asian-Americans African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, or Jewish-Americans if they have it as good as white Americans, (probably not), and do they have plans to leave the USA (again, probably not). Bhutan's treatment of the Nepalese is largely known due to a free press and the country's willingness to address and rectify the situation. Now you know my opinion, journalistic impartiality? Well, it is my blog.