It may have taken several weeks of planning, but our recent overnight homestay – the first to occur during an SFS Bhutan program – was well worth the wait and a truly memorable experience. Our group has been a bit separated from the traditional Bhutanese lifestyle while living on the UWICE campus, so the homestay was our first chance to experience family life in a Bhutanese home. I was grouped with another SFS student and with Karma Tenzin, a science student at a nearby high school.
When we first arrived at Karma’s house it was difficult to break the formal Bhutanese guest-host relationship. Traditionally, guests are separated from everything that goes on in the household, so Karma and his family kept trying to sit us down in the altar room with excessive amounts of butter tea while they prepared food. We eventually forced ourselves into the kitchen and helped cook buckwheat pancakes before going out in the afternoon, when Karma took us to two monasteries and a palace built in the 18th century. He taught us how to properly pray in the altar room, how to light butter lamp offerings, and even convinced a monk to walk with us to a sacred spot on the hill overlooking the town.
We spent the rest of the evening with Karma’s family exchanging Bhutanese and American cultural traditions. For example, we watched an archery tournament and helped cook an authentic dinner, which we then ate while watching the American TV show “Wipeout.” We showed them how to play a harmonica, and in return they taught us traditional Bhutanese songs. It was exciting to learn about their lives and to tell them about our homes in the USA, and even more fun explaining American things which don’t exist here, like s’mores and fireworks.
Waking up in the altar room of a Bhutanese home on the Fourth of July was bizarre, especially because Karma’s aunt was burning incense in every room and we thought the plumes of smoke were from the house burning down. We explained the importance of July 4th to Karma over more tea and breakfast and then walked along the Chamkarchu river. After taking family pictures, exchanging gifts and contact information, and drinking tea once more, we said our goodbyes. We were immensely grateful to Karma and his family for opening their home to us so generously and for being so friendly. As Karma said as we were leaving, the homestay was short and surreal like a “dream.” Regardless, it was an experience which all of us will always remember with joy.