Transition, Transformation and Vision for the Diaspora

Published on Jul 10 2009 // Commentary
By R. P. Subba

A highly placed source at United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said that altogether 16,000 Bhutanese citizens have been resettled in various developed countries so far. The statistics update from the UNHCR showed that until April 11, 2009 some 10,934 individuals have resettled in the United States of America under the third country resettlement program. Likewise, 675 Bhutanese refugees have resettled in Australia, 220 in New Zealand, 161 in Demark, 159 in Norway, 148 in Canada and 91 in the Netherlands. A total of 66,747 Bhutanese refugees have reportedly declared their interest for re-settlement.

Re-settlement no doubt, offers a great excitement to the Bhutanese refugees. The number of refugees declaring interest for resettlement speaks of this reality. The UNHCR and other agencies involved in the process are trying to capitalise on their initial success, to encourage more refugees to opt for the resettlement program. The resettlement process will continue and during the ensuing months and years, most of the refugees living in the camps will journey into different directions and make new homes in different parts of the developed world.

When we say ‘Bhutanese refugees’, we understand a ‘community’ that now spreads into a vast Diaspora across different lands. Here is a ‘community’ that is changing roots. ‘Transition’ refers to the adjustment they are undergoing and ‘transformation’ speaks of the need on their part to accept some vital changes during and after this transition. ‘Vision’ refers to a collective need, which will map the direction this ‘community’ will grow. The ‘community’ no doubt is going through a rapid ‘transition’, one which requires ‘transformation’ and a proper ‘vision’ for the future.

People primarily identify themselves through communities. The natural grouping is inevitable, powerful, durable, desirable and more effective. It is possible to grow, rebuild and preserve common values when people live in communities. Commonly shared characteristics such as religious belief, ethnic origin, language, past history and social values have always been the basis of social cohesion among us. These values foster ‘we’ feelings in ‘us’ and makes us part of the same ‘community’. A community is not a human but must be humane.

The moral test of any community lies in how it helps for the development of its future generations. A good community enables and encourages its members to do their best.

Participants at the convention. Photo source: ABA

Participants at the convention. Photo source: ABA

The Bhutanese refugee community has lost its political roots today. After resettlement in different continents, they have to root themselves new. Going forward is not easy, but we have come absolutely prepared for the journey. The good thing is that we already have a vibrant ‘community’ in place. We just have to rediscover ourselves in this new setting and move on. The key is to understand the value of social networking and display that inter-connectedness as much as possible.

Social networking unlocks our potentials and drives us to growth collectively. Collectivity creates synergy, strength, power and possibility in addition to individual efforts. Our social leaders, rights activists, intellectuals, journalists, writers, poets, artists, singers and community elders should realize that the concerns, hopes and aspirations of this community to grow – socially, politically and economically – are larger than the physical separation that divide us. They should understand the situation that brought us here, is not just an inventory of personal tragedies; it is a collection of hopes and aspiration for our future. They should act accordingly and leave some of their creations for the future generations to simulate.

Life is basically designed to be transformational in nature. It is desirable that a community in a rapid state of transition like our’s should be strongly transformative. We ‘transcend’ from one reality to another in the process of transformation. Transformation is a leap forward; it is changing into new, going ‘beyond’. Literally, currently we are going through this experience, we are experiencing a new existence, a new way of living. Resettlement has made that transformation almost mandatory. It has also fundamentally altered the rules of engagement in our community. The role of the village head man, the priest and the temple in our lives, perhaps will never be the same.

Resettlement thousands of miles across, in countries with various political make and models and in societies; complex and hitherto unknown, could be full of new realities and challenges. Our own life experiences and norms of life sharply contradict with the norms of the technologically driven societies we are resettled in. In America, life revolves round the clock and the hours you make working, but we come from a culture that values social norm, traditions and rituals more than work. Our festivals come every month and we celebrate some of them for weeks. We know manual work not mechanization. We know the plough and the field, the crops, orchards, cattle, the villages, the rivers and rivulets, temples, monasteries, dzongs, foot trails, extended families, the ritualistic life, traditions, festivals and celebrations – none of these will be part of our social life any more. It can put a test on our families, faith and culture.

The west works, learns and communicates through technology. The centrally heated houses, bath showers, the western toilet system, air filters, smoke alarms, vacuums, dish washers, micro waves, barbecue grills, washing machines, dryers, home computers, online payment systems, traffic rules, riding a public bus system and trains, paying by credit cards, lifts and escalators, drug bottles with child lock systems, assembling ready-made (packed) furniture, child seats, seat belts, pumping gas, school admissions, tax filing, vending machines, cell phones or registers at work – for the Bhutanese people everything is an absolutely new experience. From food habits to work habits, from customs to culture, from ways of life to personal habits and etiquette – the need for change is absolutely pervasive and ubiquitous.

The westerner, whose life centers around these basic, routine experiences, is often shocked to discover that for many of us these devices are a first time experience. Some have expressed wonders knowing that some of our people had not known soda in their lives before. What seems so obvious to them is very complex to us. Often at times, they may be perturbed by our simple questions. Often, they have failed to understand this background of the refugees with any sympathy. It seems so obvious, that lack of technological know-how is a great impediment in this transition.

Many have not figured out how to use the shower for many months, and many have not used a vending machine. For a population whose roots are deeply embedded in an agrarian life and village traditions; and in whose lives a routine set of cultural values have always played a dominant role – this transiton is not as seamless as it has been generally thought of.

It is important to learn how America works. It is important to learn the mainstream culture and the English language. Even for those of us who speak English, American spellings, pronunciation and usage could be a problem. For instance, gastroenteritis is heart burn, petroleum is gas. Soft drinks are sodas. Half pants are shorts. Weight is measured in pounds, liquids in gallon; distance is measured in miles etc. The cultural gap is staggering.

Though, all Bhutanese resettling abroad are equally new to the west, those who are English educated and have an urban life experience will enjoy a higher leverage. For the elderly people with a rural background, the technological and cultural adjustment will be more challenging. They have to put a little more effort at learning new things and creating new interests.

The problem is that we cannot ‘transform’ you. We can only inform you. This is a bottleneck in this transformation. We can disseminate information that helps in your transformation. But information is only a tool; you are the actual role player. This transition may look arduous but it is just trivial and temporary. The real challenge is to root us deep into this society and start growing. The adjustment is going to be hard and dynamic. If you have transformed well during this transition, your integration into the American society is easy. At the end, it is all about choice – we can choose to do well or we can deteriorate. Choose to transform in the ways you think, feel, idealize and perceive – as individuals and as a community and achieve a bigger milestone or choose to ignore it and lament. Choice itself is a challenge. Studies have shown that people who have transformed quickly and integrated well have achieved more than those who chose not to.

Developing a vision
A vision should be written only in a few words or sentences. How can a vision be seven pages long? A vision may not even need to be written, a vision needs to be visualized. I am just trying to set up a broad parameter for that vision development and explaining the need and urgency of having one.

How can we shape our ‘tomorrow’ by making rational decisions today? What positive assumptions and expectations do we share for writing that vision? Are we in control of our future as a community? Visualizing what our community would look like in fifty years and beyond has been my fantasy. Developing an image of our own future is a motivating factor and could be in the interest of our community. From the vision we lay down today, our future generations can gain inspiration and draw a frame of reference of the times we are living. Above all, visioning stimulates the notion of change, which in turn will determine how a community may sustain its future or shape the direction to which it will progress. On the contrary, an absence of a proper vision could give birth to the emergence of some toxic cultures, which can infect the whole community. Developing a vision for our community seems to be the right thing to do.

Where does vision come from? A vision comes from ‘us’ and all of us. Remember, ‘none of us is as smart as all of us’. We alone are the best and the most reliable ‘infrastructure’ in the development of that vision. A vision is thinking about the next level, so it must be adopted only after understanding the new realities and its associated environments more intimately. It needs to be developed in tandem with the shared experiences, expectations and aspiration held by all community members. It should be intelligible and inclusive of the significant views and aspirations held by the community for their future. And lastly, it needs to be generated, articulated, owned and supported by members of the community who design it.

A vision paper should provide a proper vision rationale, but need not be too radical. For the first time, we cannot blame it on Jigme Singye, if things did not go right. We are on our own and the responsibility to do something is inescapable, excuses or no excuses.  Above all, we cannot let the future happen to us. The purpose of this paper is to begin that discourse and facilitate a discussion to that end. It wants the community members to think what possibilities and challenges exist in this adjustment and how can we make the best out of it. It wants to explore what is an acceptable model of growing our community and how can we achieve it?

That said; let’s welcome you to the future!  Imagine the Bhutanese Diaspora in the next fifty years and beyond. The 60,000 Bhutanese refugees who will resettle in the US will expand demographically. A whole generation of Non-Resident Bhutanese (NRBs) is in the making. The picture looks very good and welcoming.

Will the younger generations continue to relate and acquaint with other Bhutanese people in the Diaspora? Will they retain and protect their Bhutanese identity, heritage and history or be proud of their past origin? Will they read or even know the history we have gone through? Will they epitomize the lessons learned from the Jewish community, and not shred off their moral responsibility towards Bhutan? Will they survive the ‘melting pot’? Will they be threaded like one community, will communication flow among them?

The answers to these querries are definitely not simple. Time alone is the greatest tool which will test, how this community will move forward. It is hard to predict that future with any authority now. And we cannot simply hope, it will be better. Hope is not a strategy. We must try and do things worth doing to move our community in the direction we desire.

What can we do?

I. Self-Education: Read, Read, Read; Write, Write, Write
Education has two basic parameters – formal and non-formal. The Bhutanese people take formal education seriously, but the society has not quite learned how to continue education in a non-formal setting. They believe that education is complete when they write the last paper in their graduation final. Self-study habits have not developed as a culture.

Self-study is an important aspect of continued learning and enhancing knowledge. It replenishes ideas that are not available through formal institutions of learning. Nothing surpasses the power of education and organization in empowering people. A community grows proportionately to the number of bright and learned people it has. Educated Bhutanese should be willing to share time, writing both in online forums and regular papers. Our habits so far suggest that we Bhutanese are least interested in reading or writing anything. This habit needs to improve, if not drastically. As for any trade, there is one particular secret to improving our learning, and that is  “Read, Read, Read; Write, Write, Write”.

Make sure your children get a very good education. In America, education is free up high school. Grants, loans and scholarships are available to students quite easily to continue or complete higher studies. We should make the best out of these arrangements. Having reached a foreign country without any assets or money, we have to understand that a good education is the only key to our children’s future. It will be their greatest resource and the only best tool. Our hopes really lie in the next generation but we should never lose sight of the urge to succeed socially and economically, even during this transition itself.

II. Culture continuity
The ‘Resettlement’ program need not end in the ‘melting pot’. It is possible to continue existing as a discrete, culturally separate entity. It is important not to lose cultural values as it forms a continuum between us and the next generation. To this generation, the need to retain, preserve, practice, transmit and walk our youngsters through our history and cultural values really comes as the next burden.

That responsibility can be fulfilled only if we can compile, retrieve, repackage and re-use our own stories and pass them on to our younger ones. These stories should be durable, accessible, discoverable, affordable, transferable, portable and available to all, especially the younger generation. This is the new way of guiding, coaching and leading our community. And this probably is the single most important responsibility; our generation can take on.

We must achieve this in synchronization with the more important objective of integrating into the American society – politically, socially and economically. No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive. Striking a balance between the cultural ‘melting pot’ and a full integration into the American mainstream can offer a very complex blend of opportunities and challenges. We must ‘think outside the box’ not losing sight of the fact that integrating into the American society should be our main objective.

III. Leverage your position
Leverage is the power to control a lot with just a little. Big doors swing on little hinges. Archimedes once said, “Give me a lever, long enough and a place to stand and I will move the entire earth”.

Living in the Diaspora is a blessing in disguise. Very often, Diasporas have the luxury of operating quite independently from their home state or host countries. Self-identified Diasporas exert significant pressure in the politics of their home states by engaging directly with third party states and international organizations.

We need a platform to responsibly leverage our aspirations. For those of us who live in the Diaspora, ABA could be a good start but it needs to do more. We must also not forget that our community in Bhutan hope on us to speak for their freedom. Today, we are ‘free’ to speak for the ‘freedom’ of others. We must use this freedom to rally the same hope and aspirations for other Bhutanese who are still living under authoritarian rule. We must now expand outwards and speak for those who are going through similar situations, we once went through.

We can leverage support for the growth of free media inside Bhutan as well as in exile. We can also lobby or pressurize Bhutanese authorities to scrap laws that do not serve the democratic interests of the Bhutanese people. Asking the Bhutanese government to legislate laws to grant ‘dual citizenship’ to all Bhutanese settled abroad or persuading the Bhutanese government to open a full fledged Embassy of the United States in Thimphu and vice versa could also be in our agenda. In the long run, we can constitute investment teams of NRB entrepreneurs who will invest and own properties in Bhutan. Let’s have a vision that we can.

IV. Do not play the southern gallery
It is quite habitual that our people tend to relate the Bhutanese movement only in the context of the southern Bhutanese problem. As we mix and mingle with the people in the host countries, it may be wise not to play from the southern gallery. That has never been the spirit of the Bhutanese movement and it will be totally unfair to do so.

V. Our goals have post has not shifted
There was this notion that the Bhutanese ‘movement’ will naturally die down when some people leave the camps for resettlement. That is not true because all the people will not leave the camps, and not all people who leave the camps will leave the ‘movement’.

Let’s remember that our goal posts have not shifted, whether we are in Nepal or in America. Human rights, democracy, good governance, rule of law, right to expression, right to citizenship etc are the flesh and bones that kindle the spirit of the Bhutanese movement. Our lives resonate that reality as long as history can safely deliver that message to people, who are interested in truth. As permanent residents and citizens in America, we can still respect that movement and support it morally.

VI. Useful Media
The media, its content and its messages are powerful socializing agents, which can help or hurt our socialization process. Online media such as the internet can criss cross and thread every section of our community. As a tool for mass communication the internet can is useful for discovering each other, exchanging information, educating our people,  or exploring our history. Internet forums provide a platform where we can dialogue and reconcile views. We can meet, discuss, iron out differences and discover solutions to our problems. The nexus between the media and the community has always been very close.

In developing a vision for the community, the media’s role is crucial. It can generate ideas by initiating forum discussions or directly solicit ideas from people. There is no subject matter expert in this area, but together, we can always find great ideas to move our community forward.
(This is the paper Subba presented at the convention of the Association of Bhutanese in America on July 4, 2009. For direct communication with the writer, write him to: rpsubba@gmail.com)