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.
"Apparently it was making the youth too violent, since they were wrestling each other all day. The government felt this violence was not Buddhist and goes against our gross national happiness philosophy," Zam, the DJ, said with a laugh. She said she opposed the ban, but also saw the reason for it. "Maybe it was a good thing to be able to understand our Bhutanese identity first, and then open up to the world," she said.
Bhutan likes doing things its own way. It is the only country in the world to ban the sale of tobacco. Thimphu is the only capital in the world without a traffic light; instead, a white-gloved traffic officer directs cars, pedestrians and yak herds. The city had a zoo, but freed the animals, saying it wasn't in the Buddhist spirit to cage the national mammal, the takin, which has the head of a goat and the body of a moose.
While Bhutan's ways are quirky, the culture, at least in urban areas, is morphing into something new.
Thimphu's central square is filled with teenagers strumming guitars and wearing buttons with the names of rock bands such as Metallica. A transvestite recently went out in public to a disco -- a sign, the DJs at Kazoo said, that youth culture is open to previously shunned ideas.
Many younger Bhutanese have started to fuse their culture with the tastes of the West. The Zone Cafe in Thimphu, for instance, serves yak burgers and pizza with yak meat. A Bhutanese fashion designer, Sangay Choden, put Velcro around the waist of her traditional kiras to make them easier to wear.
"I wanted to be creative and voice what our youth feel today. But I also wanted to keep being Bhutanese," Choden said. "It can be done."
That's what parents at Gurung's day-care center are hoping for.
Because the government is wary of permitting too much change too quickly, it has placed restrictions on day-care centers, licensing only those that watch children over the age of 3. The decision has effectively pushed grandparents to stay at home for the first years of a child's life or working parents to hire a nanny. Now, parents at Gurung's center are lobbying the government to allow day care for younger children. They say the rules could require them to be at the center during work breaks and lunches.
"Day-care centers will keep evolving," said Gado Tshering, secretary of health. "But we don't always want to completely copy the West. Imagine if we opened those, how do you say . . . old-age homes? Imagine if Bhutanese people actually started to kick out their grandparents? We just couldn't allow such a thing."