It is difficult to imagine a culture more different to my own Australian culture than the Bhutanese. Our economy is centred on money while Bhutan’s focuses on happiness. They’re exclusively Buddhist to our diverse but primarily Christian history. Bhutanese are all of Asian extraction, while Australians are mixed, but mostly white. We’re among the wealthiest countries in the world. Half their population live below the poverty line. We live on the coast. They live in landlocked mountains. Most of us only speak one language. Bhutanese typically need to speak between two and five languages just to be able to communicate with their own countrymen.
And yet, when I explained to a friend that my book was about the internal struggles that Bhutan is facing as it tries to find its place in the modern world, her immediate reaction was to say, ‘So they’re just like any other country, then.’
Like Australia, Bhutan was built on a mix of nationalities, some coming over the border from Tibet, some of Indian heritage and more recent arrivals from Nepal, brought in to help build the infrastructure in the south. Racial conflict, especially between ‘Southern Bhutanese’ and the rest, is strong enough that nearly 100,000 Southern Bhutanese were evicted in 1990 and now live in refugee camps in Nepal. The world watches both Bhutan and Australia and judges our treatment of refugees, yet I don’t know of any other country that does better.
Whether new or just recently communicable, rapes, murders and theft are now as much a part of Bhutanese life as Australian. My friend’s van, representing his life savings, was stolen from the middle of town. A soldier raped his neighbour’s six month old daughter. And the country’s Buddhist occupants wanted to tear him apart, screaming for the death sentence. This religion, supposedly philosophical and peaceful, is as full of ritual, superstition, bigotry and hypocracy as Christianity in Australia. An off-duty taxi driver chose to improve his karma by preparing a religious ceremony rather than helping us get to town when Marie’s tyre burst right outside his house, an hours walk from town.
The residents of Bhutan now face an employment crisis as more people want to work office jobs, but there just aren’t enough to go around. And while we worry about losing our jobs to cheap labour from India and China, Bhutan is stuck right between the two, having neither the skills nor the infrastructure to compete with them. And these countries pose a military threat to Bhutan, both capable of wiping the country out and only held in check by diplomacy. Compare that to Australia’s inability to patrol our expansive borders and our overpopulated neighbours who only stay away for diplomatic reasons.
If two peoples as different as Australia and Bhutan have so many similarities and face so many of the same issues, surely it’s easy to see that people of any other country are the same. Afghans, Americans, Japanese, Bolivians and Indians all find themselves facing issues of unemployment, national security, religious bigotry and manipulation, racism and crime. We may be culturally different with different values, but we’re all the same.