The one difficulty…
Click here to read an article by Michael Hutt about Bhutanese-Nepali refugees.
I remember reading something back in the late 1990s about television in Bhutan. It was an article in Newsweek or Time or another similar magazine.
Bhutan is a tiny country bordering Tibet in the Himalayan mountains. Fairly isolated, the people there had no access to television. It was in fact illegal to transmit or receive television—banned by royal decree with the aim to protect the population from potentially negative outside influences.
Beginning in the summer of 1999, however, things would change. That was when the Bhutanese government made locally produced television available for the very first time. Cable and satellite would eventually be introduced, too, but after centuries of cultural isolation, the king felt it best not to expose his people too abruptly to mass media on a global scale. The article suggested moreover that Bhutan could provide an interesting case study on how television might impact a “pristine” society.
A few years later, I watched a short film, The Last Place (2002), about the coming of cable television to Bhutan. In this ten-minute documentary produced by two students from the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, Bhutan was depicted as the ultimate Shangri la. Untouched and unspoiled, secluded from the rest of the world, Bhutan had “no traffic lights and no fast food.” It was a peaceful, spiritually driven country “with more monks than soldiers,” where prayer flags fluttered in the wind and progress was officially measured by GNH, an index that tracked “Gross National Happiness.”
Was all of this about to change? The film asked if western media, with its aggressive advertising, would transform the people of Bhutan into materialistic consumers. For Bhutan’s foreign minister, this was both inevitable and unfortunate. But the minister could speak of a bright side, too.
TV news has shown people in Bhutan how troubled much of the world is, and it has made them appreciate their country all the more. I have myself heard comments from people saying that, ‘My God, we didn’t know that we were living in such a peaceful country, there seems to be violence and crime everywhere in the world.’
In a related story accompanying the film, Orville Schell, former Dean of the Berkeley Journalism School, tied Bhutan’s success to its unique culture.
On the Indian subcontinent, awash in corruption, ethnic struggle, illiteracy, pollution, poverty, and the clash of civilizations, Bhutan’s pacifism, paternalism, and egalitarianism stand apart… No larger than Switzerland and with a population of less than 700,000, Bhutan is, in fact, a place of peace and natural beauty.
More recently, in 2009, I attended an exhibition of Bhutanese sacred artwork at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. Promotional materials for the exhibit characterized Bhutan as “a remote and mystical kingdom” valiantly refusing to bow to outside influences.
A sovereign nation that has maintained its cultural, artistic, and religious traditions intact, it is one of the few countries in Asia never colonized by its neighbors or Western powers.
Bhutan must be beautiful. But this ongoing need to celebrate and protect the autonomy and purity of traditional Bhutanese culture leaves me feeling a bit uneasy. I have to ask myself, could Bhutan really be the land of misty mountains, thunder dragons and universal happiness that I have imagined? Was it ever such a place? More importantly, what are the real reasons behind Bhutan’s cultural policies?
I wondered what the new video students from Nepal might say about my visions of Bhutan. After meeting them that first day at the workshop I was curious to learn more about who they were and also about their relationship to Bhutan and Bhutanese cultural history. I definitely had questions…
For starters, how did they come to be refugees from Bhutan? From what I knew about the country, it just didn’t make sense. Why would people flee Shangri la? What had happened to their families to make them leave such a peaceful paradise? How had they ended up in in Nepal? And why were they now living in Oakland, of all places?
I still didn’t know who these kids were. The only thing I really knew about them was that they wanted to learn how to make video—all twenty-six of them. And even that was a curious thing, too. Uptown’s video workshop, it seemed, was turning into a more interesting project than anticipated.
The first meeting of the first workshop of what is now Uptown Media Arts took place at OSA (Oakland School for the Arts) in the Fall of 2009.
Unlike what is seen in this photo, it was chilly and overcast that Thursday afternoon. Kids outside the building were shivering.
With about twenty minutes left before the video workshop would start, I headed down the hallway with a question for security about how the kids should sign in when they arrived. As I walked into his office, the Director of Security and Facilities was just getting off the phone. He looked a bit concerned.
You’re one of the video people, aren’t you?
When I told him I was, he informed me that a fairly large group of students were downstairs asking about the video class. They were crowding the main entrance and things were getting a bit hectic. He suggested, with some urgency, that I go meet the young people and escort them to the media lab.
"A large group? How many?"
We had not expected more than six or eight students to show up.
"There are at least sixteen waiting inside but more are outside, too. You’d better get down there as quickly as you can."
I suspect the excitement downstairs was in response not only to the number of recruits (over twenty by the time I got to them) but also to the remarkable nature of the group.
They had arrived together, en masse, and obviously knew each other. From the looks of it, they were indeed a very cohesive group of young people. They were also compellingly beautiful: all slight and slender, with features that were neither south asian nor east asian, but both. They huddled together, close and cozy on that chilly afternoon. And they were quiet, too—very quiet compared to the OSA students running about.
Who were these kids? When I started asking questions, it seemed that two of the boys, most likely with the best English-language skills, were acting as the group’s spokesmen.
"We want to learn how to make video."
But who were they and where did they come from? They were from Nepal, they told me. Some, however, said they were from Bhutan. But they were also all from Nepal. I was confused. One young woman, also a leader, informed that she was from Bhutan but lived in Nepal. I was still confused…
Eventually it would become clear that our workshop recruits were Bhutanese-Nepali refugees. With the exception of two of the oldest ones, they had all been born and spent most of their entire young lives in refugee camps in Nepal, after their families were driven from Bhutan in the early 1990s. More recently, in the last six to eighteen months, they had arrived in Oakland, their new home, as part of a United Nations resettlement program.
There would be time to learn more about them—time for them to share their stories. For now, however, these kids wanted to learn how to make video.
So we all headed to the lab…