Correction to This Article
This article about the effects of globalization in Bhutan gave an incorrect figure for the country's population. Bhutan has an estimated 635,000 people, according to a government count.

'A Society on the Threshold of Change'

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 4, 2008

THIMPHU, Bhutan -- The children pounced on Nordon Gurung's lap, tugging on her long hair, spilling apple juice on her traditional skirt and singing songs in her ear, as if she were their grandmother.

But Gurung is not a granny, or even a relative. She is a day-care provider, a once-unknown profession in this traditional and secluded Himalayan nation where grandparents have long been in charge of watching over children.

"To most elder Bhutanese, leaving your child here while you work is utterly mind-altering," said Gurung, as she lined up the children for their morning exercises under blossoming peach trees. "But for our young, working parents, this is a wonderful lifeline."

The growing number of day-care centers in Bhutan is just one of the ways in which this ancient civilization is modernizing, often at rapid speeds. More Bhutanese are moving to cities and away from their extended families, traditionally a vital part of the social structure here. In the capital, Thimphu, young Bhutanese are wearing Western-style jeans and tuning in to satellite TV for the first time, watching programs such as "Desperate Housewives."

Now, many fear Bhutan's unique culture will be diluted, or even overtaken, by the powerful forces of globalization.

"Bhutan is a society on the threshold of change," said Namgay Zam, 22, a disc jockey at "Kazoo FM: The Voice of the Youth." "We're struggling to find the right balance. It's one of the most challenging questions for the next generation: How do you modernize, but also remain Bhutanese?"

Sandwiched between China and India, the world's most populous nations, rugged, forested Bhutan is landlocked and has just 2.2 million people. It has long feared for its survival. Bhutanese watched nervously as Tibet was occupied by China in 1950 and the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim was swallowed up by India in 1975.

Bhutan has remained peaceful. Buddhist prayer wheels sit like kings in village squares, and centuries-old fortresses poke up through blue pine forests.

The country's revered king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated in favor of his son in 2006, but he transformed Bhutanese life in ways that remain evident. He made national dress compulsory at offices and temples -- men wear a kilt-like gho, with black knee-high socks; women sport colorful, floor-length skirts -- and he introduced a philosophy he called gross national happiness. It's a measure of happiness built around the idea of retaining Bhutan's culture and protecting its pristine streams and forests.

Fresh from elections last month that ended more than a century of royal rule, Bhutan is now a constitutional monarchy. It's struggling to do what many other countries have struggled to do: open up to the world while retaining its way of life.

One Bhutanese leader has remarked that Bhutan may well be the last country on earth to allow a McDonald's to raise its arches, which here would sit among monasteries and pagodas.

Bhutan's royal government didn't legalize satellite television until 1999. It was the last country in the world to introduce broadcast television. It did, however, later ban MTV and the World Wrestling Entertainment channel.

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