Such were the times. “You will stay in the caves in the nearby jungle until we come to fetch you.” With this solemn decision, my mother’s course of life was forever changed.
It was in the early 1960s and the government of Bhutan, having just been hit with the realization of the significance of modern education, was sending recruiters to enroll children in schools.
That fateful day, word had reached the hermitage of my grandparents in the remote eastern Bhutan that young children of the village were gathered to be taken far away to a place called “ischool” [school] where they would be taught to live like foreigners.
The idea of a girl being rooted out of a domestic sphere to read and write alien subjects was incongruous and they felt that it was their filial responsibility to protect their daughter from this precarious encounter of modernity. Her parents deemed that she was saved from the vices of the outside world, but she would have to live with an eternal self-questioning of “what if?”
This is not just my mother’s story; it is a shared experience of many.
Times have changed to such an extreme that the once unattainable education is now depreciated to a mere appendix whose reliability is doubtful, and its need questionable.
“What is the use of education? I make the same money or maybe even more than my colleague who is a college graduate.” This is a common attitude of many nowadays.
What makes it grimmer is that this attitude is prevalent in my own community here in the USA, and it is more painful when it comes from fellow women. These words instantly delegitimize centuries-long cries of advocates who have been fighting for rights to education; women have cried harder.
The eighteenth-century Mary Wollstonecraft to Malala Yousafzai in the present have been championing similar belief that social progress will be achieved only through the education of women.. Besides, such a mindset of money-equals-education does not even align with either our background or our present contexts. We come from a culture where learning is worshipped, to a point where it is blasphemous to even stamp our feet on a written word.
This paradox is further perfected by the fact that if our elders are asked the reason for moving to the USA, a unanimous answer is “for our children to have better education.”
Joining a college still remains a far-fetched dream to many in the parts of the world from where we come. Yet the loud defense now is that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did not need education to reach the heights they have scaled. What is not considered here are the countless hours they have spent to master their skills and the volumes of knowledge and information that they have absorbed before their ingenuity spilled open. And most of the time, for such individuals, money is not even the end goal.
Money is a by-product of excellence, but excellence does not occur in a vacuum. Education is one reliable path which will lead to excellence, and therefore should not be taken for granted. Scientists, priests, businessmen, kings, sportsmen, artists, scholars, parents…name anyone and everyone’s true end goal is excellence, and hence their emphasis on education.
Times are changing. Education is no longer bound in the concrete classrooms. Online classes and digital learning bring classrooms and teachers to you. Information is shared in a nano-second and a touch of a button on our phones and computers can unlock a world of books and articles. Gone are the days when women had to bribe their brothers to access their books and when women writers adopted male pseudonyms to publish their writings. There has never been an easier time to excel. The once unattainable education is now in our hands, becoming an integral part of us.
We, former refugees, should know first-hand that it is only with education that our faculties will be strengthened so that we do not once again succumb to subjugation of any kind. Education is the only peaceful answer to silence and a means to eventually overcome any level of oppression, whether inflicted by an individual, group, government or system.
It is only with education that we can erase the label we were given as refugees – “shallow and empty”. As new citizens of a country that has given us the right to nationality, let us establish our Bhutanese-American generations by exercising the right to education and celebrating the privilege to learn, instead of shutting ourselves in the caves of ignorance.
Allow me to end by congratulating the Bhutan New Services for the relaunch and also by extending my deepest appreciation for keeping our collective voice from being stifled by the changing times. I also call upon for more female readers and writers to contribute in making this voice heard, not just louder but wiser and better represented. Our social media platforms highlight the Bhutanese diaspora with pictures of ourselves in the best of costumes, enjoying the most succulent of delicacies, and dancing to the liveliest tunes; let us likewise channel our energy into discussions of ideas, sharing of stories, and disseminating of learned information. Let us prove that we have prospered, not just in wealth and quality of life, but that we have excelled in our thoughts, words, and actions.
One of the columnists for Bhutan News Service, the author is currently a PhD candidate at Georgia State University, specializing in Victorian Literature with a focus on women authorship and readership. Her next column is due in December. Views expressed here are those of the author and not that of BNS.