by Nicholas Reece, University of Michigan (2018)
Not many people in the states know about the country of Bhutan. It is a small kingdom nestled in the Himalayas and sandwiched between the two powerhouses India and China. With a population of merely 700,000, the entirely Buddhist culture has been shielded from the developed western world until about 16 years ago in 1999 when they first opened their doors and allowed TV and Internet to penetrate the everyday lives of the citizens. Known most by foreigners for it’s Gross National Happiness rather than Gross Domestic Product and it’s attempt to become 100% organic, Bhutan is the living example of a society that many in our fast-paced stressful world only dream of.
It was to this unique culture that I found myself traveling on August 22, 2015 for my Summer Recess. Cat O’Brien, a good friend who lives and teaches in Bhutan, invited me to visit her school. After hearing her stories and seeing pictures, I knew what a unique opportunity this was and looked for a way to take full advantage of it.
The Taft Room, our then haphazard storage room, was getting cleaned and consolidated at the same time that I was preparing for my trip. I took advantage of this and went to StuCo President Luke Aiura and asked for his help. He found a couple of unexpired cases of pediatric toothpaste that were in line to be discarded. I took these cases with me as a gift for Cat’s students. After hearing about the lack of hygiene awareness in Cat’s school, I knew these were a perfect gift.
I carried on 72 sample size pediatric toothpastes through four airports and thirty-four hours of traveling. After arriving and a four-hour car ride full of green Himalayan Mountainsides later, I found myself in the small village of Thinleygang, Bhutan. Feeling the ten-hour time difference, I ate a small dinner and immediately fell asleep.
The next day I woke up in the clouds and tried to orient myself to the time difference and the village before heading to school with Cat. She teaches English to two sections of Class 4, about sixty students total. Her students were very excited to meet another foreigner and even more excited to learn that I brought them gifts from the States. As I passed out the toothpaste the students had to be instructed by Ms. Cat that, “this is not chocolate, do not eat it.” I followed with a little oral health instruction on how and when to use the toothpaste along with what it does to their teeth.
Word spreads quickly in small villages and very soon after class I had other Bhutanese teachers approaching me asking for “Colgate” –their word for any brand of toothpaste – and even after reaching Cat’s house at the end of the day villagers continued to ask if I had any left.
In my short time in Bhutan I observed that oral hygiene is not a primary concern of their population. Due to their diet of almost entirely rice and organic vegetables, most of the adults do not suffer from very much tooth decay. The young children, however, who are growing up in an increasingly developed country with chips, chocolates, and sweets being imported from India are experiencing exponentially more and more oral problems.
As my trip drew to an end, I reflected on how rapidly the country of Bhutan is changing. With more food being imported from India, oral health will soon gain more attention. After about a month, Cat tells me that she has students telling her that they still have their tubes of toothpaste and that they share it with their brothers and sisters. I felt very privileged to visit this protected country and very happy to be able to raise a little awareness of oral hygiene in the village of Thinleygang.
I would like to thank Cat, my guides during my trip, as well as the O’Brien’s and others that made this trip possible.
If you would like to learn more or support the organization Cat is involved with, please visit The Bhutan Canada Foundation at www.bhutancanada.org.