Memoir Book Review: Linda Leaming’s Married to Bhutan, Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

by Matilda Butler on April 20, 2011

catnav-book-raves-active-3Post #84 – Women’s Memoirs, Book & Video Raves – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Memoir Book Review


Linda Leaming

Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

A recent tweet by @LindaLeaming read:

“On my first trip on Druk Air to Bhutan sat next to a snake charmer w/ cobra in a basket on his lap.”

In Married to Bhutan: How One Woman Got Lost, Said “I Do,” and Found Bliss, a memoir about her life in that tiny country, Leaming shares many such incidents. She identifies herself on Twitter as “author, immigrant.” This book tells her tale of migration to one of the most remote places on the planet, and how it reshaped her life.

Leaming first visited Bhutan, securely landlocked in the Eastern Himalayas between China and India, in 1994 when she was 39. That was five years before television, let alone the Internet, arrived — and only twenty years after the country was first opened to foreigners. And therein lies the crux of the dilemma Bhutan now faces — how to move rapidly from ancient culture to global influence without sacrificing the essence of its spirit. For here is a country whose king voluntarily abdicated the throne in 2008 to bring democracy to his people, who would likely have rejected it had they voted.

While traveling to India and Europe, Leaming added two weeks in Bhutan out of curiosity after meeting Bhutanese residents at the United Nations. She was instantly hooked on this unspoiled region, returning in 1995 and 1996 to examine every part of the land. In 1997, she moved there “to teach English for no pay at a cultural school outside Thimphu,” the capital of this constitutional democratic monarchy. She transferred in 1999 to the National Art School in a Thimphu suburb. In 2000, she married Phurba Namgay, a thanka painter who taught at the school. A few years later, Leaming and her husband adopted a six-year-old needy girl named Kinlay.

Now in her memoir, Leaming ponders both the emotional and physical aspects of her epic journey. It was not easy. To get to Bhutan, you must land in a short narrow valley at almost the highest airport in the world, second only to La Paz. If it’s hot, dark, cloudy, or rainy, the flight crew will jettison luggage in Calcutta to gain speed or fuel.

Leaming presents a hilarious faux rush-hour traffic report in this country of no traffic lights: “The cow path is clean this morning….” Painstakingly she learned the national language of Dzongkha, one of several hundred languages and dialects. [If you are interested, listen here to Bhutanese songs.] She ate new foods, such as ema datse, the peppery hot national dish.
In living with less luxury and far fewer things, she became happy, which is in fact, the country’s GNP. The feature documentary BHUTAN: Taking the Middle Path to Happiness won two Emmy Awards for its exploration of Gross National Happiness, a policy introduced by the king in 1972. Its core principles are cultural promotion, equitable economic development, good governance, and environmental conservation.

Yet all is not bliss in Bhutan if we consider the refugees fleeing the country, and Leaming does offer an explanation for the situation.

She also makes three points about the road to happiness:
1. There will probably be some physical pain and some form of renunciation.
2. Ultimately no one else can make you happy. You have to do it for yourself.
3. Happiness doesn’t come from outside forces, but rather from how you view the outside forces. It comes from inside.

Readers gradually pick up Leaming’s own philosophy of life from views she expresses throughout her memoir:
1. There is too much structure in the world.
2. It is important to understand that people elsewhere think differently.
3. Daydreaming is a lost art.
4. Life is about improving yourself and your lot.
5. Life is about intent and the subsequent action.
6. Wealth in Bhutan doesn’t come from money.
7. It’s good to be rational, but a little spontaneity is also beneficial, as is an occasional grand leap of faith.

Differences between life in Bhutan and the United States become clear — a lesser obsession with paper and documentation, the presence of civility, no Styrofoam and fewer plastic bags, and collectivism rather than individualism. “People have to cooperate in order to survive in these isolated mountains. They have developed a sort of groupthink: they look out for one another.”

The “notion of choice” intrigues her husband on his first visit to the United States, where he is confronted with an almost overwhelming selection of merchandise such as tablecloths, toothbrushes, underwear, and shoes. In a small store in Thimphu, a shopper finds only one type of each item.

Leaming notes the absence of a frenetic level of energy found in the United States. “People are comfortable with silence,” she writes. She loves hiking in Bhutan, calling it her “reason for living.” She becomes aware that she has lost the ability to worry about small things.

The current publishing penchant for triplets reminiscent of the tripartite Eat Pray Love is evident in the subtitle: How One Woman Got Lost, Said “I Do,” and Found Bliss. Married to Bhutan: How One Woman Got Lost, Said “I Do,” and Found Bliss is well written, edited, and proofread, but a map would have been helpful. Motherhood remains undeveloped in the memoir, as her daughter is not mentioned in the Epilogue. I would have welcomed Leaming’s thoughts on the topic.

Memoir writers might ponder the voice, at times flippantly witty and then abruptly introspective and thoughtful. These variations may have been due to the earlier appearance of some of the stories in different forms in other books and magazines. I wonder if the story flow might have been easier to follow had Leaming sat down cold to write a memoir of Bhutan rather than combining previously written pieces. It’s hard to know, because certainly many writers use this approach, working with journal entries to create a memoir or utilizing short stories to turn them into a novel. My hunch, however, is that the thread of an end product is less frayed if it is knitted from the beginning of the skein rather than spliced in later.

Bhutan seems to be a very popular topic in 2011. Lisa Napoli’s memoir Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth came out in February. And on the same day that Linda Leaming’s Married to Bhutan: How One Woman Got Lost, Said “I Do,” and Found Bliss was published, two other books also appeared: Kevin Grange’s memoir Beneath Blossom Rain: Discovering Bhutan on the Toughest Trek in the World (Outdoor Lives) and Bradley Mayhew’s Lonely Planet Bhutan (Country Travel Guide).

Linda Leaming’s memoir is an insightful look at Bhutan from a westerner who has lived there for many years and knows the country inside and out. And she makes strong points applicable to other cultures. I nodded my head in recognition at many of the mental sketches she drew, based on my time in a different tiny betel-nut-chewing country opened to the world after being shuttered for twenty-five years following World War II. The summer I spent in what is now known as the Republic of Belau underscored for me many of the same global truths that Leaming observed.

A person does not need to move forever to a remote spot to have it change your life in significant ways. Bhutan, Belau — the setting is of less importance than the fact that a person has lived in a different part of the world at some point. Certain lessons simply can’t be taught. They have to be experienced — or read about in a good memoir such as Married to Bhutan: How One Woman Got Lost, Said “I Do,” and Found Bliss.

By this means, armchair travelers can meet at the communal water source of the world to drink in other cultures through words. Ah Memoir — promoting peace on the planet, perhaps?

If you prefer the Kindle version, the price is currently $1.99. (April 20, 2011)


Lanie Tankard -- on the road to Imeong Hamlet

Lanie Tankard -- on the road to Imeong Hamlet

Lanie Tankard is a freelance editor and writer in Austin, Texas. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews. She taught English as a Second Language in a summer Headstart program during Peace Corps training in the village of Ngaremlengui on the island of Babeldaup in Palau (now the Republic of Belau, formerly part of the U.S. Trust Territory of Micronesia).

Lanie Tankard with Smaserui Family in Ngaremlengui Village

Lanie Tankard with Smaserui Family in Ngaremlengui Village

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