Bhutan Stretchy Time

Posted on August 29, 2018

I’m now in Bhutan, which operates on Bhutan Standard Time though the Bhutanese, who have fine sense of humor, and well aware of their tendency to not be punctual refer to this as Bhutan Stretchy Time. Foreigners here are affectionately called chilips, and when I make plans with Bhutanese friends, most ask if I mean chilip or stretchy time.  Office workers arrive 15 or 20 minutes after official work time, if they know they will be later they text co-workers. Scheduled meetings usually run a few minutes late with no one feeling inconvenienced. Operating on the ‘when in Rome principle’ I’m most always fine with stretchy time when making plans with friends to meet in the evening for dinner or party, I expect the appointed hour is often not much more than a general suggestion. Bhutanese are unbothered by the lax attitude towards time here.


In USA where I originated people adhere to time rigidly, and toss about the phrase ‘time is money’ as though it were some sort of mantra. Cause someone to loose time, and it’s not unusual to hear this admonishment. In Mexico and Bhutan where I spent a lot of time, I’ve never heard this phrase.  Only a generation ago most of Bhutan was rural and agricultural, and there was no electricity, cars, offices to rush to for work, and no watches to clock the time, and no need to clock the time. Farmers knew they had to stay the daylight hours in the fields, and the darker hours at home; cooking, praying, sleeping and plenty of conversations with family and friends. They had plenty of time, and no need to mark its passing.


In my experience, the good people of Bhutan and Mexico tend to see time not as the strict traffic cop that it is in the USA.  As punctuality is not part of the fabric of society, there is no value placed on punctuality.  Everyone seems to be aware that certain (few) situations require promptness, for the other situations people have an open relationship with time, and like in the most successful open relationships, no one gets upset.


Most of the world operates like this, and it’s really only northern Europe, USA and Canada, Japan, and few other places that have a rigid and inflexible adherence to time. I find it interesting that Americans will poke fun at Japanese and Swiss and accuse them of having a fetishistic obsession with time, as they surmise the US relation to time is the gold standard, anything else falls short (be it more stringent or more relaxed) and is subject anything from gentle ribbing to outright scorn. Am I the only one who notices some hypocrisy or inconsistency here?  What people from my country do like about Mexicans and Bhutanese is the simple fact that these are friendlier people, more open and welcoming and it’s not at all difficult to land in these places and pretty quickly have a circle of friends who are available, genuine, sympathetic and just a lot of interesting fun. There’s a spontaneity to these cultures that if ever existed in the USA is long ago lost, so that ones friends and acquaintances have time for you on a regular ongoing basis, and if you should be in some situation and encounter a new and interesting and pleasant person, you might just allow yourself to be late for your next engagement as you spend some time with this new person. This fosters a sense of community that makes people feel connected to their fellow man and woman that makes one feel part of the fabric of society, and even as a part time resident I feel this and feel warmed by this. There’s no price I can put on this, though I’d inclined to say it’s so valuable as to be priceless. So I gotta wait for people to arrive sometimes?


In Bhutan where I am now living (and where there are few other expatriates) a New Zealander who I often encounter is always sputtering “these people need to learn to be on time.”  She works all over the developing word, so certainly has encountered this relationship to time before, so I find her attitude culturally arrogant and would expect more understanding from her, and think she’d be more relaxed, plus better liked if she embraced the local relationship to time, and stopped railing to the Bhutanese what they need to do (to make her life easier?).  I encounter similar attitudes in Mexico from resident foreigners, and this cultural arrogance smacks of superiority from the westerner, the cultural bias that we grow up with, that our countries the most rich and powerful gives us the right to disparage other countries because people do not arrive on time, because the internet is not speedy enough, the roads have potholes, the hot water not hot enough and so on.


I’m so pleased that time and I have an open relationship, no one gets hurt or jealous and it’s a very healthy, mature and I expect long term relationship.