Monday, July 20, 2015

Understanding the mysterious country of Bhutan with Jamie Zeppa's Beyond the Sky and the Earth


Ashley Kalagian Blunt reviews one of the few books about the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Renowned as the “Last Shangri-La,” a reputation fuelled by its government’s creation and pursuit of Gross National Happiness, Bhutan has piqued international interest in recent years. The reality of this tiny Himalayan nation is far more complex than glib coverage of GNH can reveal, as Jamie Zeppa’s engaging but at times discomfiting Beyond The Sky and The Earth: A Journey into Bhutan shows.   

Zeppa’s memoir is a present-tense account of her two years as an expat teacher in Bhutan. From Toronto, Zeppa has experienced little outside metropolitan North America. Her knowledge of Bhutan comes from black and white photos found in library books – it’s the late 1980s, so her access to further information is limited.

Zeppa conveys a powerful sense of Bhutan’s renowned beauty. At first, the mudslides, the remoteness of her posting, the lack of electricity and the potential for foodborne-illness slow her appreciation of her new home. She writes, “I have done nothing but worry since I arrived in Bhutan, two and a half months ago. … I live in a tiny cramped room of what-if.”

As she connects with her students and neighbours, however, Zeppa begins down a path of deep transformation. The memoir’s most compelling story is her transition from secular Western urbanite to eager student of eastern thought and Buddhist practice. She discovers and practises mindfulness, teaching herself to overcome homesick feelings. She comes to understand that “Buddhist practice offers systematic tools for anyone to work out their own salvation. Here, the Buddha said, you’ve got your own mind, the source of all your problems, but also the source of your liberation. Use it. Look at your life. Figure it out.”

The narrative style eloquently traces her efforts to adjust to cultural quirks that at first she finds unfathomable – such as returning home to find a houseful of guests. Still, she struggles, particularly with the policy of beating students for punishment. “I remind myself that this is not my country, not my education system. … it is part of a bigger cultural system, it involves different values. You can only judge it from your perspective, from your own cultural background and upbringing, and even if you are right, what can you do about it? Back and forth I argue right-wrong, east-west, judgment is possible-impossible.”

This difficulty is magnified when political problems ripple across Bhutan. Zeppa happened to be in Bhutan as the issues between the ethnic-Bhutanese ruling class in the north and the settled Nepali migrant population in the south disintegrated. Eventually, nearly 100,000 ethnic Nepalis were forced out of Bhutan, an instance of ethnic cleansing that is rarely mentioned in news stories touting the Gross National Happiness model. Zeppa describes the difficulty of understanding what is happening around her as the situation becomes more violent.

Throughout the book, Zeppa’s voice matures along with her understanding of Bhutan both as a mythical Shangri-La and as a troubled nation beset by the same challenges of identity and belonging playing out around the world. Zeppa’s ability to interrogate both herself and the culture around her with curiosity and compassion make this book a memorable read. 

Ashley Kalagian Blunt is a writer, reviewer and trainer. Originally from Canada, she now lives in Sydney where she is an enthusiastic member of that city's literary underworld. Ashley teaches creative writing, speaking and self-development. She has been published in McSweeney's and the Griffith Review.

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