Bhutan is a small landlocked country in the middle of the Eastern Himalayas,bordered by China and India. Bhutan remained largely isolated from the rest of the world until the 1960s, when the country’s previously absolute monarchy became constitutional. After this, the country was opened up slowly to outside influences and became a member of the United Nations. Finally, in 1999 Bhutan became one of the last countries on Earth to gain access to television— from that point, mass media flooded in. Because of the relative isolation, Bhutan has an extremely strong traditional core and culture. In fact, they have been rated the happiest country in Asia and the 8th happiest country in the world.
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With a population of only 770,000, Bhutan has been increasingly sending its students abroad. Many of them even travel thousands of miles to study in the United States. Rigzom Wangchuk, a 2014 Brown University graduate, is one of those students. Early on, however, Rigzom took a different path than many other Bhutanese students. Rigzom attended the United World College in Hong Kong along with students from over 110 countries–many of whom were choosing to pursue education in the United States.
Rigzom, along with many of the students that come from abroad to study in the United States, hopes to return home with her degree and contribute to the Bhutanese community. Rigzom aligned her studies at Brown with interests that would allow her to give back to her country. “I’m interested in international development because I’m from a developing country. I want to contribute to steps that address inequality in Bhutan and finding more sound economic policy.”
Despite the fact that Brown University is a diverse place, with over 2000 international students, representing 101 countries, Rigzom was the only student from Bhutan for most of her time at Brown and she didn’t feel like she fit into any of the existing cultural groups from her region. According to Rigzom, other regional student association groups had cultural dominance reflecting the size of representation: “I was frustrated trying to find a platform to express my culture and [make] the Brown community aware that Bhutan exists.”
In the fall of 2013, Rigzom came across the Brown Student Language Exchange, where she was presented with the opportunity to share her language, Dzongkha. While she loved introducing her language to her peers, she found that it was most fulfilling to be able to share her culture. Rigzom also noted that the cultural aspects of her lessons were often the most enduring. “One of the things that I shared with them was about Bhutanese New Year and they always make a point to wish me a Happy New Year every year. You can tell they are genuinely interested.”
However, feeling so far from your culture for an extended amount of time can be difficult. Bhutanese people have a very strong connection to their homes and their family, and for Rigzom, it was hard to be surrounded by place that was so far removed from how she grew up. She explains that, “90% of the time Bhutanese people come back home [from being abroad]. There’s always something about [Bhutan] that keeps pulling us back.”
While the time after college can be difficult for anyone, it is even more difficult when you feel caught between two cultures. However, through the Student Language Exchange, Rigzom was able to bring a little slice of Bhutan to Providence, Rhode Island and hopefully make being across the world feel a little more like home. Back when Rigzom was teaching the course, she noted, “There was a time I thought nobody cared to know anything about Bhutan, and now I have a dedicated space to share it with participants who are eager to learn.”