Say Banana

Posted on February 08, 2016

“Say banana,” says Dorji in the presence of his Bhutanese friends. I know I am being set up, and say the Dzongkha word for banana, to immediate peals of laughter from Dorji, and embarrassed smiles from his friends, too polite to burst their sides laughing as does Dorji. Until they see him laughing, then it’s just apparently too funny the way I mispronounce this word, and they too erupt in laughter. I am obviously Dorji’s one-trick pony, always reliable for this set up, and as he’s my good friend and no malice is intended, so I perform for him when asked to say banana in Dzongkha, Bhutan’s national language.


No visitor to Bhutan needs Dzongkha, as the country’s official language is English and well spoken by most, but I’m a language nerd and frequent visitor to Bhutan. There’s no book or course for Dzongkha study. Instead I pitched an idea to the Tourism Council of Bhutan that I come and study Dzongkha so as improve my knowledge of the country and people I have come to love. Bhutan’s steep daily tariff of $250 per day, designed to keep Bhutan from corrupting foreign influences presents another hurdle. With Dorji as intermediary, I was granted a month in Bhutan, with no tariff to pay. I had to sort out lodging and food, and find someone to teach me Dzongkha. But with Dorji’s contacts and my contacts, this was easily accomplished.


Surprisingly there is an institute in Thimphu, Bhutan, the Dzongkha Learning Centre. It exists not because chilips (Dzongkha for foreigner) come for language study, rather as Bhutan has 4 main languages and while English is official, Dzongkha is the national language and language of parliament so many whose first language is not Dzongkha need to polish their Dzongkha skills for parliamentary debate, or other work situations. So while I am next to a classroom of Bhutanese whose Dzongkha lacks certain nuances, I sit in the directors office where they try to impart the rawest basics of the language to me. Dzongkha is similar to Tibetan, in the same sense that French is to Spanish. It is also tonal, and contains sounds that English speakers never have to utter, and on top of that, the grammar is unlike any I’ve encountered. And there is a different alphabet, at least with letters and not characters.   If those who maintain learning another language exercises the brain, keeping it supple and youthful, Dzongkha is advanced aerobic yoga, with some heavy lifting thrown in.


Each day I sit for 2 hours with a private tutor, they switch tutors on me every couple of days, 2 teach me for a couple of days, then one departs and I have a sole tutor, then another arrives, both of them teach me and initial tutor departs. I feel like the baton is some strange language relay race, though enjoy all my tutors and they seem to like me, so take no offence at this trail of teachers.  I begin to feel the frustration and elation of a child who is uttering his first words. I have patient teachers, and they praise my halting efforts at Dzongkha from the first day. I don’t quite believe them, though the praise feels good. There are some tough sounds to create, sounds unknown to my ear or mouth, and then there is sentence construction that bedevils me. The trickiest sound is the one that the Bhutanese transcribe into English as NGA. When said it sounds like NA to my ears, and I say it as such, which leads to these funny moments when the tutor says “nga” and I hear ‘na’ and repeat “na” and tutor says no, “nga” and I repeat ‘na’ and again tutor says “nga”. But before long I can say NGA. To get this sound to leave my mouth I have to engage in some strenuous mouth and facial contortions. I depress my tongue, push the tip against my lower teeth, open my mouth wide, displaying all my dental work, way too much tongue, and the spot my tonsils occupied before their long ago removal. This is not an elegant sight, but the sound is correct. I am working on saying nga without any mouth contortions; this is how the Bhutanese do it, so obviously it can be done.


Not only is Dzongkha proving tricky, but also I’m not forced to speak, as everyone speaks fluent English, so pretty much aside from the tutors, my strenuous efforts to speak are met with English answers. But I soldier on, and find it all enjoyable. It’s much like a jigsaw puzzle, this jumble of sounds instead of pieces, but with the same small feeling of satisfaction when I piece together 2 or 3 words. Sometimes I err, and it’s like jamming together 2 puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit, short-lived excitement, which dies upon realizing I am making no sense. Seven-year old Jigme, the son of my landlords is one of my biggest helpers. Fluent in 3 languages, he helps me with my homework most evenings in his parent’s café. Other patrons notice, the chilips as it seems I’m the only one learning Dzongkha, the Bhutanese as they are unaccustomed to chilips who can say more than hello and thank you in Dzongkha.


My days begin by meeting my friend Choki at 7:00 a.m. to go to the gym. He’s half my age and would like to someday compete in the Mr. Bhutan contest, so he makes a good workout partner. He’s also very patient and encouraging with my attempts at Dzongkha, thus he’s a good supplementary tutor. At the gym we do numerous sets of a given exercise, and usually from 10 to 15 reps in a set. Choki insists I count my sets in Dzongkha, which brings the gym to a standstill, as all the others stop what they are doing to hear the chilip count in Dzongkha. With my penultimate rep I holler “daro satchey” meaning one more, and then finish. Usually to applause at the sight of a chilip being able to count to 15 in Dzongkha, not for any impressive amount of weight that I lift.


The days have a nice rhythm; gym, class, lunch, study and an afternoon wander about Thimphu alone or with friends, dinner and off to sleep. Thimphu suits me just fine, it’s small enough that pretty much everyplace is reachable on foot. Set in a steep sided valley; where the buildings, which are mostly shades of tan end, the forest begins, covering the hills in green, ending with blue sky, the tan, green and blue tiered effect certainly a pretty one. People friendly and polite, life relaxed enough so people have time to stop and talk. I find nothing menacing or intimidating about Thimphu, though while Bhutanese talk about growing crime, according to the newspapers, it seems to be mostly egg smuggling and cigarette smuggling. Egg imports forbidden due to avian flu, and cigarette imports forbidden, as Bhutan is the only country in the world to ban tobacco and smoking. Foreigners are still uncommon enough to attract smiles and conversations from strangers.  There is a languid feel to the place, that is mighty alluring to me, and about halfway through my month an uncomfortable thought strikes me, I have only 2 more weeks in this most unusually pleasant town.  I am not alone in finding Thimphu friendly; it was recently named the friendliest city in the world.


Bit by bit, my mind wraps itself around more Dzongkha sounds and words. It also frustrates me in many ways. Just when I have mastered a sentence on my own, and then decide I want to add to it, I’ll formulate the words in my mind, insert them in what I think to be the proper place and sequence, only to learn that the addition of these words requires the addition of an article or two, often a preposition, and that it changes the structure of the sentence in what my mind seems a most illogical way.  Yet I have acquired enough words that I can properly string together that I can sometimes startle Bhutanese with a correctly spoken Dzongkha sentence. Travelers in Bhutan always seem to be making withdrawals from the Bank of Goodwill that seems to operate in the soul of each Bhutanese, so kind and gracious are the people, and I feel my efforts at Dzongkha are replenishing my karmic good will account here. It’s an altogether good feeling.


Usually in Bhutan I see Dorji daily, as he and I co-lead our trips. This visit I feel a bit like a kid on my own. He calls a couple times a week, I drop by his office, or we randomly encounter each other on the street. One day towards the end of my stay he calls and suggests we meet for lunch. We go to a newly opened Indian restaurant and eat curry with roti and drink mango lassis. Dessert is seldom served in Bhutan, though fruit is usually offered at the end of meals. The waiter brings the customary platter of fruit, and I pick up a curved yellow cylinder, shake it in Dorji’s face and say, in perfect Dzongkha, “banana.” Dorji’s eyes go wide in astonishment. He just realizes he lost his one-trick pony.