Thursday, September 11, 2014

More than thousand words

If a picture can speak a thousand words, then video should do more. Here's me walking from one class to another in Sherubtse College - on any given day.

Ever since I landed here exactly one year back, there has never been a day that I regretted leaving a high-profile life in Thimphu for a modest job of a temporary teacher in the remotest corner of Bhutan.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Happiness is a place in your heart

There is something from my childhood that I remember of my late paternal grandfather. He was a classic Sharchokpa village man. Every evening we had to go and look for him and find him in different places. He would have walked away during the day to look for some Ara (Bhutanese sake) and to look for someone to chat with. Wherever we found him, he would be there, on the floor, with people around him, happily chatting away, little tipsy but extremely content and happy.

I think I have inherited some of his genes although he was not my biological grandfather. I have perfected the art of being content wherever I am - whether it is in Thimphu, Kanglung or San Francisco.

I am in Delhi now and relishing the few days I have in this city - wading through book stores, visiting some cultural events at the Habitat Centre/IIIC and having coffee meets in Khan Market with my friends from the Indian media and universities.

In other words, wherever I am, chances are you would find me happily chatting away and, of course, very content - minus the Ara, obviously.

The secret, I guess, is that true happiness is a place in your heart, which obviously travels with you and you will find peace, love and happiness wherever you go.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley is actually not a valley as such but a small area in South San Francisco Bay created by Stanford University around its campus. The Valley registered an annual GDP of $200 billion in 2013, which would be the combined GDPs of the poorest 45 countries in the World.

What is interesting, and also inspiring, is that this bustling area of ideas, innovations and iPhones was a vision of one simple man - Frederick Terman who was the dean of engineering at Stanford in the 1950s. All the super dot com companies, except for Microsoft (Seattle), IBM (New Jersey) and Compaq (Texas), are here.  

The Southern Bay of San Francisco is the location of Silicon Valley 

Driving down the Silicon Valley from Oakland, California

Crossing the Bay to Palo Alto from Fremont. (Try spotting San Francisco in the picture)

No caption required for whose office is this

The nouveau riche, who are mostly in their youth, are on spending spree buying fancy cars and properties 
in the Bay Area. Prices in San Francisco have shot up beyond the reach for ordinary people

A majestic road and palm trees welcome you as you enter Stanford

The Oval lawn in front of the East entrance of Stanford. This is how they receive you

Stanford University - The iconic Hoover Tower and other buildings displaying Spanish architecture 

Pedestrian crossings are respected unlike in Asia where zebra-crossing is waste of paint

They also conduct classes under the tree. So I am not alone doing that 

David (to my immediate left) left a prestigious teaching position in Stanford to start a 
self-financed NGO to help children with learning difficulties. 

Driving back to San Francisco on Freeway No. 1, rated as the most beautiful freeway in the US

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Meeting my inspiration

Berkeley, CA -
There are people whom you meet just once, but who leave a huge impression in you. One such people is Reno Taini.

One of the highlights of my trip to the US is meeting up with him again. I met Reno some 12 years back in Bhutan. He was conducting a workshop for teachers in Punakha.

I was blown away by his zeal and energy that I invited him to come on my TV show "Q&A with Dorji Wangchuk". He talked about his works with troubled youth in the Bay area for which he has dedicated his entire life. He invented his famous wilderness program. He also alerted us that the violence among the urban youth in Bhutan (which we are seeing today) was coming and that we should be prepared for it. Unfortunately no one took notice of his words back then. If only…. 

Reno is responsible for my becoming a teacher now. He inspired me to dedicate some time for others - especially the youth; to make the abled ones fire towards their dreams and to work for those who have lost them.

He is an amazing guy. Although he has a PhD and got many offers, he decided to teach in a low-profile public school in Daly City near San Francisco and take care of the "difficult" kids in his town. Reno Taini was honoured by the State of California in 1982 as the State Teacher of the Year. And several times thereafter. He self-financed and created the much-acclaimed Wilderness School which is captured in a fascinating documentary - Reno's Kids (1987). His program inspired me to include it as a sub-plot in my feature film, Nazhoen Chharo (2008). He was also honoured by his alma mater, San Franciso State University to represent them. He helped hundreds of troubled youth to only get back their lives; some even won congressional medals for their services to the community. He was even called upon by the US State Department and the Department of Defence to help the Vietnam and Iraq war veterans. He appeared in countless radio and TV shows and of course in newspapers. He still continues to do so.  

He has again been called by the US federal government to do something about the mental issues that the American youth are facing.

Reno honoured by the State of California on many occasions
He has long retired from the school but not from his convictions and his works. He still talks, and only, about how much there is to do and how many people he could help. He almost goes into tears when I share the few things I did, which is no where near what he did. Still, as a good mentor, he gives me high-five for every small story of success, perseverance and dreams that I have restored for others.

All these years that I have known him, Reno kept inspiring me and encouraging me in whatever I did.

Grazie, Reno, for being an inspiration.

Reno invited me and my friends over for dinner at his farm and had a terrific surprise - a ride on the 
Dodge jeep used during World War II by General George Patton. Reno bought this thing and worked 
on it for 30 years to bring it back to life. What an honour to be riding on the same jeep! When I 
was a kid I saw the film 'Patton' with George Scott and ever since I remained deeply impressed
 by the Gen. Patton.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Letter from America

San Francisco, CA -
America is a big country. There is no "one" single America that you can decide to love or to hate. America is too complex to be generalised or over-simplified. Whatever you say about this nation, the opposite is also equally true. 

One thing is certain though: you shouldn't believe how Hollywood or the media portrays this country. Other than that you explore this diverse and fascinating places on your own.

This is what I found out (of America that I didn't know). 

Americans love foreign culture because there is no such thing as an "American" culture. 
On 5th July 2014, 26,000 people gathered at AT&T Park just to watch 
the live telecast of La Traviata - an opera by Giuseppe Verdi (Italian)
Few things I personally don't like about America - Coca Cola and McDonalds. 
As a coffee addict, I forgive Starbucks (sorry for this bias)

Americans give back a lot to their alma mater. Almost everything you see in 
Berkeley campus are donated by the alumni. (Sathier Gate by Mr. Peder Sathier)

The Godfather's original table. Seeing it for real after, I don't know how many 
times I saw in the movie, was a nice feeling 

The closest that I can get to the Oscars. With the five Academy Awards that Francis won. 

Walk in the Cloud. Francis Coppola's Winery in Napa, California inspired me to
consider retiring as a farmer when I am done with my "working" life.

UC Berkeley has raised more money in one campaign than what Bhutan has as its national foreign currency reserve. This something we Bhutanese can learn from the Americans

The Americans respect their heroes in every small way. What do we do with 
ours (Druk Thukseys)? We forget them or, often, squander them

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

It is contentment, stupid

Part 1/2

In recent years so much has been written, talked about and discussed on the topic of happiness - or the lack of it in today’s world. And what spurred this debate was a quote from the former King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck. In 1979, pestered by an Indian journalist* while transiting at Bombay Airport, His Majesty stated that "for Bhutan, gross national happiness (GNH) was more important than gross national product".

Despite low GDP, Bhutanese are generally content with life   
While the King never elaborated further, on that famous statement, what one can deduce, considering the context and circumstances under which His Majesty made that remark, is that he really didn’t mean happiness per se. What His Majesty could have meant by gross national happiness (and I hope someday I could confirm this) was contentment. And by this it means that he wanted his people to be content whatever the annual per capita income may be. During that period Bhutan's annual GNP per capita was in fact just USD 35, the lowest in the world. But the Bhutanese people were generally happy - as they are now.

Nevertheless, His Majesty steered the country for 34 years based on this unique philosophy. He also lived according to his own dictum; preferring a 3-room log cabin in the outskirts of Thimphu (where he continues to live today) to the massive Dechencholing Palace. He abdicated in 2006 (at 51) and leads an ordinary (read extraordinary) life. He never travelled out of Bhutan for pleasure.

Back to our topic, is there then a difference between happiness and contentment? 

At first glance one would think that both concepts were the same. But on closer scrutiny there is a huge difference. A happy person is obviously contented, at least temporarily; but a contented person may or may not be happy. A poor widow with seven children and living in the slums of Mumbai may live quite a contented life if she can feed them while also coming to terms with her conditions in some ways. On the other hand, a millionaire who throws wild parties every night would get bursts of happiness but may not be content  inside. 

The search for contentment is however not easy. It is something that every individual on the planet would grapple with for eternity. 

So, let us illustrate the three key differences between the two concepts.

Time scale – Happiness, especially as it is understood in the west is transitory and temporary. It is a fleeting moment – a result of some pleasure seeking activities. You are happy on a Sunday afternoon and grumpy the next morning as you drive to work. Whereas, contentment is permanent. It is there all the time – deep inside you, on weekends as well as on hard weekdays.

Subjectivity– Happiness is subjective. It varies from person to person, from communities to communities and even between nations. What makes one happy may not make another person happy. Or something that works for a nation happy may not work for another country. Contentment is absolute. Fundamental contentment is the indestructible sense of wellbeing that cuts across nations, cultures, communities and traditions.

Subliminal – Happiness is apparent and tangible. A happy face glows with smiles, laughter and delight. A contented person may or may not show these signs. But the contented person is calm, composed and in peace; no matter what happens in the vicinity. He is neither shaken by tragedies nor does he go euphoric with temporary excitements.

Achievability – Unlike happiness that is subjective and thus unachievable, contentment is something that is absolutely reachable. Achieving contentment means accepting what one has and what one is - a goal that each one of us, rich, poor, ugly, handsome can all strive for and go for it. 

Good luck to all. 


* The Indian journalist is supposed to have asked the King, "We don't know anything about your country. To start with, what is the per capita income of Bhutan?"

** I am collaborating on an exciting research on decoding the science of contentment with UC Berkeley and Yale University. Here is our lead researcher Dr. Daniel Cordaro speaking at Being Human Institute in San Francisco

Sunday, July 6, 2014

My first day in America

“Ladies and gentleman, we have now started our descent for San Francisco. Please fasten your seat belts, fold back your tables and put your seats upright. The local time in San Francisco is now 9.45 am”. A soothing announcement comes from the flight deck of the All Nippon Airways (ANA) – one of  my favourite airlines. I am on my maiden trip to the USA – the 34th country I would be travelling to.

During my long years in Italy as a student I was never really too attracted to America. I rather preferred to explore the more culturally-rich and diverse Europe. Then in my professional career expanding to some 20 years I operated mostly in the region of Asia and, of course, Europe. This time, however, I accepted the invitation from my friends in Berkeley mainly because of an exciting research we are venturing into - finding fundamental contentment (distinct from the much-hyped happiness) through the use of modern media and the science of psychology.

The journey to the US is long. I cross 10 time zones since I got on the plane in New Delhi. Night fell twice as we first flew to Tokyo where we transited for 3 hours before catching a connecting flight to San Francisco - enduring another 10 hours of air travel. Still, thanks to the time difference I would manage to reach on the same day as when I started off. My aim is to make it for the Independence Day celebration, which my friends insisted on not missing it. I used the trick from the book Around the World in Eighty Days. I took the East route, which was also little shorter in times of flying time. 

Daniel and Lisa, my good friends and also my co-researchers, pick me up excitedly from the airport; and after depositing the luggages at their place we shoot straight for Oakland Yacht Club for a barbecue party - a traditional style to celebrate the Independence Day in the US. There we meet Don and his wife Gail. Don, a former executive with Apple (he worked with Steve Jobs), is preparing his 36 feet yacht to race towards Hawaii in few days time.

Then to end the day in style, we watch the beautiful fireworks over the Bay area, which thanks to the (in)famous fogs of San Francisco, are unique in that we can see only the lower half of the fire sparks with the upper side creating some mild flashes like lightnings in the clouds. 

Day ends as I collapse on the pillow having tried my best and succeeded in staying awake despite the 14-hours jet lag.

Welcome to America.

Taking it slow. In Alamo Square enjoying the terrific view of downtown San Francisco

At AT&T Park - the home of San Francisco Giants

Friday, July 4, 2014

America, here I come

Delhi, IGI Airport - Passport, visa, boarding pass, travel insurance and some cash in USD (in case BoB credit cards are blocked by the RMA. Actually they would for sure). And for the first time in my life, I am travelling light. Strictly within the limits of the airlines. 20kg of checked in luggage + a laptop bag.

All set for my first ever trip to the US. Courtesy of University of Berkeley and Yale. They have invited me as a Visiting Scholar. Deeply humbled by the offer. I must have done something good in my previous life to deserve this - so early in my "career" in academia. People take ages to be bestowed such honours.

With all the hassles for the US visa (I had to travel to Delhi and undergo a long painful process), I have completely kept aside the main purpose of my trip - papers and presentations.

And Berkeley is not Sherubtse or ILCS in that questions come like rapid fire. So one really got to prepare.

Anyway, America, here I come. More than anything else I am looking forward to meeting my favourite filmmaker - Francis Coppola.

At Tokyo Narita waiting for my connection to San Francisco. Little dizzy from the overnight flight from Delhi

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Values-less Education?

 is my teaching philosophy
I am back to Sherubtse, back to the classrooms and back to my students. I am into my third career – teaching. After my short stint last semester (we had earlier agreed that I would test the waters before committing for a longer period) I decided to come back and keep going for a while. 

My brief experience in education makes me conclude one thing: that the students (you can also read as today’s youth) still have the zeal for learning, success and fun. Of course, there are few exceptions as there were during my time.

This important first-hand observation supports my belief that the quality, or level, of education in Bhutan has not really gone down. Perhaps one could accept the argument that the system has not kept pace with changing times - in not being adequate to meet the present challenges or to fulfil future requirements. At best the responses have been reactive and rarely proactive. 

Besides, if quality of education has declined then our students studying abroad should flunk out of foreign universities, which obviously is not the case. Many have in fact come back with flying colours.

So then, where is the problem?

In my view, there are few vital things that are totally missing and which are necessary for people to get a meaning from their work, pursue their dreams and have fun along the way: Professional Values and motivations and inspirations. These shortcomings are primarily because of the way our education system is organised and financed. Classes are taken and teachers and students run, or rush, through the prescribed curriculum. There are no time or resources allocated for anything else besides the course work. And so people end up graduating like goods leaving a factory. 

Learning, in my view, should be much more than just completing the syllabus. For example, besides skills and knowledge, a media student should internalise the professional values that would make them great media persons - traits such as honesty, courage, commitment and thirst for information. Someone studying environment studies need to embrace conservation ethics, outdoor life, love for nature in every small way as students.

Instant hit: With his wits, humours and amazing 
stories, former environment minister and chief 
justice, Dasho Benji Dorji visited Sherubtse 
and became a darling of the students 
Values associated with one profession are also different from the values for another job. A police officer needs discipline, leadership and authority while a filmmaker has to be creative, flexible and easy-going. If someone were altruistic and generous he/she would make a great social worker and may be a good civil servant. These sets of values should be develop (or should be taught or inspired) when they are in schools and in colleges. If not, when? And vice-versa one needs to identify one’s strengths and weaknesses before choosing a career. Honestly, I have no idea where and when things started going wrong. What I do know is that we are producing a very flat society where people survive, and are OK to be floating, in mediocracy rather than swim towards excellence. I bet no one can differentiate between a science graduate and a literature student till they produce their certificates. 

Professional values are also very often missing from students who return from abroad. Irrespective of whether one has studied in Harvard or Hyderabad the same flat mentality pertains. I guess, that's obviously from the lack of foundations in schools here. 

Motivations and inspirations fire you towards your dream. They make you race towards your goals and ambitions. They give you meaning to your life, a feeling of purpose and a sense of direction. Rarely I find anyone who is really inspired or is motivated to do anything more than just to pass the exams, get a degree and find a job - preferably in the Civil Service. 

Should we blame the kids? Absolutely not. The fault is with us – educators, policy makers, parents* and adults for not taking enough time off to really ponder, and accept some honest feedbacks, on what education is really all about. And allocate adequate resources towards achieving the much-hyped wholesome education. 

Talking of resources, there are NO shortages of resources in Bhutan by the way. What is not there is a real and serious shortage of resourcefulness and the sense of setting priorities. 

The learning environment does not inspire either. Whether you are studying environment studies, media, culture or history, you are taught in the same classroom, which are cold and eco-unfriendly, to say the least. The fact is, physical space matters. Otherwise why do we build gonpas and retreats high up in the mountains. Our monks can as well meditate in the middle of Phuntsoling instead of being in Paro Taktsang. I wish instead of building Dzongs that do no emanate any spirituality, we build educational dzongs to make learning more inspirational.

There has been one serious decline though - in the other types of values:  human values as in respects for elders, discipline and self-respect and virtues of handwork, diligence and patience. In short, attributes that make us good human beings and responsible citizens.

The forerunners: Top media partitioners in the 
country led by veteran journalist, Dasho Kinley
 Dorji (Secretary of Information) joined the 
students on the World Press Freedom Day
So then, what am I doing since I am also a part of the system now? Well, I try to play my part well. 

First and foremost, I encourage my students to learn to think rather than learn only what to do. Learning how to think will make you a leader. Learning only what to do will make you a disciple. I teach the importance of asking questions. History has been made by people who asked the right questions not by people who gave the right answers. I also encourage students to introspect. 
One favourite question I pose to students, and also make them write essays on, is on the topic, why am I here? 

I also try to make learning more interactive. We organize and encourage more field trips and outdoor classes. There is no point learning theories of communications and not know how to write a lead.

I invite people** to guest lecture here in Kanglung so that they can tell their stories and inspire - and teach some values and also what it takes to do something worthwhile in life. 

There is also a budding film and music culture here where different groups of students organise on their own and try out their creativity and imagination - again two things missing in our school and colleges. We are formalising these initiatives into a society for film, music and drama with annual festivals, competitions and awards.

Lastly, I try emanating passion in my work because an unmotivated teacher cannot produce motivated students (which actually is the main problem of our education system). 

It isn’t an easy ride though, but things have started moving, which gives me hope and optimism and reasons to smile. May be in some years down the line we will not only see qualified graduates but also few highly motivated, passionate and productive citizens who can take this country firmly into the future.

Learning to share: Encouraging community and comradeship over competition

Open class: Field trip to visit and to write about and make radio 
programs on Rigsum Gonpa, Chorten Kora and Gomo Kora
Role reversal: At times students take on the stage and teachers listen 
Learning by doing: Media students interviewing His Eminence Gyalwa Dokhampa (aka Khamtrul Rimpoche)
Potluck & Bonfire: All innovative ways of learning are explored - including 
bonfire talks and potluck dinners (students cook whatever they have and we share)

More than half of students pursuing media studies were sent against their choice by the
   parents and guardians. And a large number of students majoring in other fields actually
   wanted to study media and journalism.

** List of people who have delivered guest lectures and talks to media students:

(in order of appearance in Sherubtse as of May 2014)

1.   Dawa Penjore, Executive Director, Bhutan Media Foundation
2.   Needup Zangpo, Executive Editor, Bhutan Observer
3.   Kesang Dema, Chief of Bureau, Kuensel (newspaper)
4.   Dr. Yoshiro Imaeda, Visiting professor, Research Institute of Languages and Cultures of
      Asia and Africa, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Japan
5.   Namgay Zam, Freelance journalist (formerly with BBS)
6.   Rinzin Wangchuk, Editor (Dzongkha), Kuensel
7.   Pema Rinzin, Filmmaker-Sound Designer (formerly with BBS)
8.   Dasho Paljor J Dorji (Benji), Chief Advisor, National Environment Commission
9.   Dr. Daniel Cordaro, Professor, University of California, Berkeley, US
10. Jigme Drukpa, Singer - Ethnomusicologist
11. Dawa Peljor (Ap Dawpel), Traditional Singer (Druk Thuksey - Bhutan's highest civilian medal) 
12. Dasho Kinley Dorji, Secretary, Ministry of Information & Communications
13. Ugyen Penjore, Managing Editor, Kuensel
14. Dawa, Senior Producer - Anchor, BBS
15. Dr. Francoise Pommaret, Research director, National Centre for Scientific Research
      (CNRS), France and Adjunct Professor, Institute of Language & Cultural Studies, Taktse


Views and opinions expressed here are personal and may not necessarily reflect that of the College or of the Royal University