The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 30 August 2017

Beyond the Sky and the Earth

A Journey into Bhutan

by Jamie Zeppa

The kingdom of Bhutan, resting on the edge of the Himalayas, between India and China, sells itself today as the last remaining Shangri-la. In recent years, the tiny nation has become more accessible, and has some of the best-preserved sites from Tibetan-Buddhist history. But Bhutan has had its difficulties. Unsettled by the ethnic difficulties of neighboring Sikkim, and hoping to avoid its fate of being absorbed into India after unrest over immigration from peoples of Nepalese descent, Bhutan has implemented reactionary immigration policies that have caused quite a bit of civil conflict. This issue remains largely unresolved. The Bhutanese invited Nepalese workers in the middle of the last century, and later felt threatened with ethnic dilution from a growing population of Nepalese Hindus. Today, after mass expulsions beginning in the 90s but as recently as 2007, many thousands of Bhutanese of Nepalese descent reside in refugee camps. Bhutan's desperate nationalistic reaction to its fears of anhilation have threatened its image as a peaceful kingdom whose values include the notion of a Gross National Happiness. (There are lessons here to nationalistic movements everywhere, including, sadly, America.)

In the late 1980s, Bhutan was just beginning to open up to the rest of the world, still very cautiously (TV, for example, was banned). The kingdom invited citizens of other more developed countries to help with education and development. Excited by the visions of exotic locations and experiences, Jamie Zeppa, then a grad student in Toronto, dove into an international program that posted her to Bhutan for two years. In this book, she relates her extreme culture shock and eventual seduction by the country and its people. Zeppa starts by teaching English in a middle school in a remote eastern province of this tiny nation. The extremities of the harsh environment, the limited resources, and the breathtaking mountain landscape provide opportunities for growth, self-assessment, depression and loneliness. It is a fairly common trope in books of this kind: the culture shock that leads to an undying love for a place and its people. Zeppa does eventually fall in love with the place, but she tries to do it with open eyes, receptive to Bhutan's contradictions, and the seductions of imagining it some kind of lost idyll. After all, Bhutan's people are more complex than the happy peasants of some mythical long-ago that we Westerners so often yearn for.

Zeppa gets the chance to teach in a much more well-appointed college later in her posting. There she meets and interacts with far more articulate and worldly college students. And, there, her loneliness expresses itself in her desire for one of her students. At the same time, there are conflicts. As mentioned, Bhutan tried to protect its own identity by inflicting arbitrary restrictions on movement and dress upon its own population of Nepalese descent. Again, Zeppa tries to stay awake to the country's conflicts, but can't help but bring her Western ideals along with her. The locals don't necessarily appreciate this. The conflict remains unresolved, both in the country and within the author of this engaging memoir. In the end, after three years in country, she falls deeply in love with a Bhutanese man while at the same time finding some distance from Bhutan, itself. There are ill-advised moments that Zeppa tries to convey with honesty, moments that lead to deeper challenges and difficult realizations. She notes the deep contradictions of an idealized rural life, and the desire of a relatively poor country to develop. Her relationship with Bhutan is unfinished. The development of Bhutanese identity is also unfinished. History is a journey.

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See also: [So Close to Heaven by Barbara Crossette] [A Splendid Isolation by Madeline Drexler]

[Other books by Women Authors]

[Other Books about Buddhism, Tibet and the Himalayas]

[Other Travel Books]