Guest post by Moira Herbert, BSW University of Sydney
I’m a social worker/ youth worker from a small town in Australia. Last year on a whim I applied for an ad I was sent over Facebook.
At the time I truly believed I had nowhere near the level of experience that was required, but I thought it would be good to experience the interview process. Three months later I found myself in a higher secondary school just outside of Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan.
It was the first international experience as a professional I have had, and the experience was so strange and wonderful. I have spent the last 2 weeks home in Australia trying to dissect exactly what it is I have taken from it.
When I took on this role I comforted myself with the knowledge that I had experience working with young people and colleagues from cultures other than my own. I did not account for the difference between being part of the majority and being the minority in a place vastly different from where I had come from.
So many of the rules in Bhutanese schools were difficult for me to understand.
At times I felt as though what I understood to be important professional boundaries were almost nonexistent. I think what surprised me most of all was how embedded my own culture is and how much that affected my understanding of those I was working with.
While I enjoy working in schools, I have always found them to be difficult places to form therapeutic relationships with my clients. Many teachers take a ‘power over’ approach to teaching, which is understandable given many of the stressors of their role.
As a school counsellor you are constantly trying to develop a young person’s power and autonomy in an environment where that can often be mostly removed from them.
In Bhutanese schools this challenge becomes much, much more difficult to negotiate.
Bhutan is a country that celebrates its rich culture, traditions, rituals and patriotism. Bhutanese society is governed by a strict set of rules and manners which govern how one dresses and behaves towards another person.
From my small knowledge of these cultural rules, those older and more educated than you are generally treated with respect. In order to prepare students for life in Bhutan, schools have to enforce these cultural norms as best they can.
Initially I really struggled to build the kind of rapport that I was used to.
My students bowed before they entered the room, they would hold their hands over their mouth while speaking and in some cases would not look me in the eyes. These were all things I had read about; however, confronting them in a counseling room was much harder in real life than when I imagined it may be.
Much more challenging though was when I entered a classroom to conduct weekly lifeskill programs. 45 students would stand up in unison, bow, and say “Good morning, Madame.” They then stared at me with glazed-over eyes for the next 50 minutes, too polite to tell me they had no idea what I was talking about.
In Australia I was used to games, discussion and cheeky retorts. I firmly believed in the importance of allowing teenagers the space to explore a variety of feelings and identities.
The rigidity of a Bhutanese classroom frightened and frustrated me.
The young people solved this problem for me. Like young people I had experienced before they were slow to trust. Instead of testing my limits with challenging behavior, they were perfectly obedient and quiet. As they grew to know me more they became more and more likely to participate in the programs I had prepared and even developed the cheeky behavior I was used to from teenagers.
While some boundaries appeared to be rigidly enforced, others were nonexistent.
The most challenging for me was the difference in work environment and responsibilities.
At home I have a clear understanding of what my work hours are. Outside of those hours my clients have almost no way of contacting me and are generally given the phone number of a crisis service or on call worker.
This lets me have free time when I am completely separated from the stressors involved in my work. I have always felt this free time is incredibly important for maintaining my own mental health and ensuring my clients don’t end up dependent on just me.
The situation is very different in Bhutan.
Bhutanese counsellors are on call 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Their phone numbers are printed in their school diary, and they are often required to drop everything in their personal life in order to handle a young person’s crisis.
On a number of occasions I felt the pressure of meeting these expectations.
One morning I snapped. A young person had sent me very distressing text in the middle of the night and I did not read this text until 7 the following morning as I had been sleeping. The young person in question was fine, however the episode gave me a terrible fright.
I marched into the principal’s office that morning demanding an answer to this problem. She reminded me that there was no answer.
School counseling and most other youth services have only existed in Bhutan for a very short period of time and are still in early stages of development. There was no one else to call. The principal suggested that I should feel privileged to have a young person trust me so much that they would call me during such a time of distress.
This is a point of view I have heard throughout my study in the ‘helping profession,’ and I immediately regretted my behavior.
What surprised me most from all of these encounters was my lack of understanding of those I worked so closely with and my continual subconscious return to task-focused western-centered ways of thinking.
I would read research and try endlessly to balance my ideas of effective social work against my small knowledge of Bhutanese culture to try and be as useful as possible to the school and the clients I worked with.
So often though I would find myself getting frustrated and searching for a solution to a situation.
I think the following situation I dealt with perfectly sums up the lesson I learnt in Bhutan.
A young man came to see me one morning very unhappy and spoke continuously for about an hour and a half about a complex and difficult family issue. When he finished his story I asked him what about his situation he would like to change.
He replied, “Nothing, Madam. I needed someone to share with, I feel better, and now I can go to class.”
I understand that as a Social Worker it will always be important to act decisively in certain situations.
However, I think the most important thing I will take from my time in Bhutan is the ability to stop, sit with and contemplate uncomfortable situations and not always be seeking a neat solution.
It’s something I’ve always known, but it can be difficult to achieve when overwhelmed with the responsibilities that go with the profession.
I will be forever grateful for my time in Bhutan. As I move into the next stage of my career and my life I know I will have to keep checking myself so that I may remember the lessons I learnt over and over again.
Be patient. Be grateful. Contemplate my own culture and don’t always seek a solution to my discomfort.
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