An American Expat’s Life in Bhutan: Interview with Linda Leaming

photo of Bhutan - Taktsang Monastery "Tiger´s nest" by Goran Hoglund

On my recent trip to Bhutan, Linda Leaming’s book Married to Bhutan helped me recognize and appreciate some of the fascinating quirks of Bhutanese culture, which otherwise might have passed me by. Linda is a freelance writer, the author of two books about Bhutan and she runs tours of Bhutan.  

Laurie: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how/why you came to live in Bhutan?

Linda: I was working as a freelance writer and met a group of Bhutanese working at the UN Mission to Bhutan in New York in the early 1990s. We became friends, so I had Bhutanese friends before traveling here. They encouraged me to visit and I did in 1994 which is chronicled in Married to Bhutan. I came back in 1995, and 1996, staying longer and longer and I think the Bhutanese government found me innocuous enough and maybe amusing and certainly polite, and so they agreed to let me come and teach English so I came in 1997. I think my original visa was for 6 months, but they let me stay a bit longer. Now it’s 20 years.

Laurie: In the opening of Married to Bhutan, you describe how you tease an English friend with tales of the impossibility of ever accomplishing anything in Bhutan on a timescale that a Westerner would consider reasonable. Apart from the speed at which things happen, what are the biggest surprises for visitors from the West? I see on your website that you do tours of Bhutan—you must get lots of opportunity to see these surprises as they occur!

Linda: Yes. And surprises still happen to me after 20 years. The other day Namgay and I were going to visit his cousin who has just built a beautiful new house and he said, ‘We need to get some milk.’ I said, ‘We can get it after we go see Dorji.’ He said, ‘No, we have to take it to Dorji.’ What? It seems the custom when you visit someone with a new house is to take milk because it appeases the Nagas, earth spirits who live in and own the land the house is built on. The Nagas own the earth. We just rent. I knew people do ceremonies here when they start building and they actually dig a hole and pour milk into the ground to appease the Nagas. But I didn’t know the custom of bringing milk to a new homeowner. There are things like that every single day. Customs are numerous and the society here is very complex.

Laurie: In preparation for my trip to Bhutan, I’ve read your book (Married to Bhutan), The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden, some of George Bogle’s narrative of his visit in 1774 and I’ve got my eye on A Splendid Isolation by Madeline Drexler, though I’m not sure I’ll get to that one. Have you read these books as well? What do you think are the best books to read to learn more about Bhutanese culture?

Linda: Of course I read everything about Bhutan. Omar Ahmad’s Kingdom at the Centre of the World is good. Also Barbara Crossette’s So Close to Heaven and Jamie Zeppa’s Beyond the Earth and the Sky.

Laurie: Are you part of a writing community in Bhutan? I’ve noticed that there is a website for a writers association of Bhutan. Does the writing community consist of many women writers?

Linda: On and off. Not so much now but I like to encourage young Bhutanese writers. There will be one at some point that will write something spectacular. Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck and Kuenzang Choden are two good Bhutanese women writers. There are quite a few young women writing— about an equal number of men and women I’d say. Thing is Bhutan isn’t really a reading society and I think reading is essential for great writing. It will happen.

Laurie: You describe in detail how different the mindset is in Bhutan from that in America: history and what we would consider mythology are one and the same, success is measured by Gross National Happiness rather than Gross National Product, people value community more than individuality. How does this difference in mindset influence your writing?

Linda: It influences it in every way. That’s pretty much all I write about.

Laurie: Do you have a regular writing routine? I have visions of a deliberate, peaceful writing routine in beautiful, silent mountain surroundings where there is little risk of interruption. Is this wishful thinking?

Linda: It’s wishful thinking at this point, but after November people stop coming and we pull the clouds up over the mountains and I have long swaths of time to write and meditate and sit. Winter here is glorious for writing. Now I’m writing about ‘Rustic Weddings’.

Laurie: Do you have any new books or projects coming up that you’d like to tell us about?

Linda: I’m writing another book about Bhutan!

Photo Credit

Bhutan – Taktsang Monastery “Tiger’s nest” by Goran Hoglund. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.