Identity has been mankind’s longest search. The question of “who am I?” has intrigued philosophers from Plato to Prince Siddhartha to Descartes. For us in Bhutan, this question has become even more relevant, as the country faces the onslaught of technology and outmigration, and the dilemma and divisions brought about by politics and bureaucracy. Simply put, what does it mean to Bhutanese? This lack of understanding, I believe, forms the core of all our challenges – whether it is at an individual level or as a nation. So, drawing from my PhD dissertation, I attempt to give a definition to this slippery topic.

Identity has several definitions and concepts. Depending on the discipline, there are racial identity, gender identity, religious identity, cultural identity, political identity and so on. Here, by identity I am referring to one that comes from psychology – as in the personal identity, which describes one’s distinctive attributes that make a person unique. And more so, to the sociological definition, which refers to qualities, beliefs, and traits that characterise a person or a group. Sociologists argue that it is the social circumstances in which people have been raised that determine the ways in which they identify themselves. Identity is thus believed to be produced through social interactions and experiences.

The traditional, virtual, and hybrid communities

Nature and spiritualism occupy the centre stage in a traditional Bhutanese community. It is not humans, but nature, the source of life and power, and which dictates everything including the pace and rhythm of life. Places are not just physical spots but sources of stories and spirituality, and of inspirations and wisdoms.

Traditional communities are also where kinship and family ties are extended not only to humans, but also to nature and to nonhuman forces and spirits. So, some animals are referred to as azha Ta (maternal uncle Tiger), aku Dom (paternal uncle Bear), or memay Sangye (Grandpa Buddha for elephants). Deities and mountains also get referred to as ama Jomo, memay Chador, or as memay Ralang (a mountain in Trashigang). Kinship terms do not only serve a referential purpose. They build and sustain emotional connections too.

In a traditional Bhutanese society, time is conceived as cyclical and not as linear. For instance, older people do not remember their age, but they will remember their Buddhist zodiac signs, which is a cycle of twelve years known as lo-kor. The correct question to ask is, “How many cycles have you done?” instead of, “How old are you?”. Nature also defines the concept and flow of time. To lift from American sociologist Robert Levine, traditional Bhutanese prefer event time, and not clock-time. So, you don’t say, “I will see you at 9.30”. Rather it would be something like, “Let’s meet just before the Sun sets.” or “Let’s go after we release our cows into the jungle”. This may explain why meeting a deadline in Bhutan is rare.

More significantly, a traditional community is where everything is shared – life, work, happiness, or sorrows. When you build your house, the whole community comes together without expecting a payment. Wherever celebration and ceremonies are taking place, everyone is expected to be there. Therefore, I argue that the traditional Bhutanese identity is that of an interdependent self, which consists of a personal self, social self and a spiritual self. The social self is derived from one’s social identity as a parent, or from the vocation one practises. The spiritual self is the recognition and internalisation of the external nonhuman energies and spirits.

At the other extreme of a traditional community is the virtual community where humans, instead of nature, are at the centre of the universe. Here everything is rational, logical, scientific, and black and white. It is where time is linear. The defining characteristics here is more individualism, expressiveness, innovation and celebration of anonymity. Money and materialism are means to enhance one’s self-worth or belonging.

Striding between tradition and technology, between collectivism and individualism, and between money and meaning, is the hybrid community. Time starts to become linear here but the cyclical concept is still accepted. Nature has its place, and so does rational science. There is more “we” and less “me” in this community, and wealth is to enable one’s pursuit of the greater good.

The chronotopic Bhutanese identity

While one may observe these identities manifesting in different generations or communities, an interesting finding is that you can also notice these multiple identities in individuals, as they live through the changing, circumstances and timespace situated-contexts in life. The ingredients of the interdependent self – the personal, social and the spiritual selves, are all there in each one of us, but in different dosages and degrees. I call this the chronotropic Bhutanese identity. Chronotope comes from Greek and it means time-space (“chronos” means time, and “topos” – place), and it was coined by a twentieth century Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin to posit the idea that time and place are inseparable in literature and art. Chronotropic identity basically argues that changes of timespace configurations prompts a seamless shift in roles, behaviours, discourses, modes of conduct, thoughts, and cultural practices.

Take for example, the people of my generation – the predominantly hybrid group that grew up in a traditional setting but got introduced to science and technology. We start the day by reciting a few lines of prayers. We then get up, wash and offer water and incense to the altar, have breakfast and open a laptop at work. The virtual community, on the other hand, may be on the technology from the moment they wake up till they retire to bed. They would attend to spiritual needs if there are some religious events going on in the area, or visit a temple like Dechenphu if they need something. Conversely, the traditional community accesses the technology too but not as a default mode. It sees materiality both in technology and spirituality, though.

The key to a harmonious Bhutan, then, is not only to recognise these parallel universes, but, to paraphrase another philosopher, Jean Gebser, to embrace an integral consciousness that would involve a more holistic understanding of the reality, which includes both the rational thoughts and the intuitive sense of interconnectedness. The Generation Z (Gen Z – people born roughly after 1999) should not refute the traditional as archaic and outdated. The hybrids should not discard the Gen Zs as not adhering to established social decorum. There is time and place for everyone.

What’s going on in Bhutan, instead

From a sociological perspective I feel that there is a loss of innocence among traditional Bhutan, which was accelerated by the political changes; there is an empathy deficit among the hybrids because of newfound power, privileges and ego; and then, among the younger generation – a decline in the sense of belonging. Unless we address these developments, people will continue to search for the meaning of life somewhere, instead of drawing satisfaction from the service to the collective in the country.

My concerns are for the next generation. For better or for worse, from an interdependent-self that we should be, Gen Zs are growing up as more expressive independent selves. Instead of acceptance and guidance by the collectivist society, it is instead viewed as a social divergence. Our youth and children, then, feel misunderstood, and even rejected. Studies from other countries show that when they are isolated from their physical communities, they will either shut off completely, or hide behind computer screens and smartphones and try connecting with online communities instead. An issue with living in an online world is the illusion one develops of being wise because knowledge is in abundance there. In life, however, you need wisdom. And you develop wisdom only when you engage with the physical world, where you roll out your sleeves and get your hands dirty. This may explain the success of the Desuung program. It gives that opportunity – to go hands-on and feel a sense of belonging to a meaningful physical community.

Fortunately, the social support practices are still strong, which are evidenced by frequent and successful fundraisers on social media for someone in Australia who needs a surgery, or for a fellow Bhutanese who has to go for a transplant in India – or to simply save some yaks headed for slaughter, or build a stupa.

So, what does it mean to be Bhutanese?

To be Bhutanese means to be compassionate, collectivist and spiritual; and be cognizant of one’s place in a family, community and country; and share this space with other beings – that are both seen and unseen. If Bhutanese, young and old, could embrace these more, instead of overstressing on cultural paraphernalia or purely pursuing economic dreams, a brighter and a fulfilling future – as individuals and as a nation, will be more than guaranteed.

Contributed by

Dorji Wangchuk (PhD)

Professor, Writer,