Beyond the Earth and the Sky: A Journey into Bhutan by Jamie Zeppa is a personal account of a woman’s years in Bhutan volunteering as a teacher. The book is quite popular with the expats and volunteers in Thimphu. On the surface, the book’s popularity stems from the wealth of interesting and useful information about Bhutanese culture. On a deeper level, I believe that people appreciate the book’s authentic account of the growing pains and pleasures of living and working in a different culture.
The story begins in Canada when Zeppa is a young recent graduate who’s looking forward to marrying her long term boyfriend. She is content in her life but still decides to volunteer for two years in Bhutan for personal growth. She is stationed in a small town in the east where she works in a primary school.
Zeppa writes about the learning process she undergoes while living in Bhutan. It’s a similar process to the Milton Model of Intercultural Sensitivity outlined in this post and this one. When Zeppa first arrives she is focused on the surface differences such as architecture, food, and clothing. She attempts to cope by learning as much as she can and stocking up on Western foods in the capital. She goes on to romanticize Bhutan and then become shocked and troubled by some of the cultural practices. She tries to remain neutral and nonjudgmental, only to become shocked and troubled by what she’s accepting. Finally, Zeppa learns to balance adapting to a new culture without losing herself.
While reading this book, I developed a great respect for Zeppa and came to see her as a role model. She writes honestly about her reactions but maintains a nonjudgmental and respectful attitude towards the Bhutanese. She remains open-minded and curious, even when feeling burnt-out, isolated, and uncomfortable. Issues such as human rights, poverty, and education reform are addressed in a cultural context and as they relate to universal human rights.
Zeppa’s writing reveals her capacity for deep understanding and empathy. She is a self-compassionate and insightful learner. I highly recommend this book for international social workers and those who enjoy travel writing.
To purchase the book on Amazon, click here.
To visit Jamie Zeppa’s blog, click here.
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