Oh! The Dutch Demon in Bhutan

All around the world, people have figured out a system of eating out; it is not unusual to eat less at home and definitely not unusual to pay separately while in a group. It gets me wondering about the evolution of dining etiquettes and the social construct from within this group activity. Dining out in itself is challenging, that the matter of the purse takes it to a whole new level – at least, in Bhutan. The rest of the world has given it a name, and for most –it is the rule. Not for Bhutan. The social construct around going ‘dutch’ is relatively new and has proven on many occasions to be nerve racking.  It is yet to become a norm, and has with it the risk of overriding the general hospitable nature in Bhutanese.

But I figure the general hospitable nature in Bhutanese has its roots in the fact that as a culture, we do not eat out. Guests are welcomed at home where foods aplenty. The restaurant concept is relatively new, and newer still the crowd that eats out. Eating out to an old school Bhutanese meant eating out of the house like a picnic, or at a relative’s place or a friend’s place, but never eating at a restaurant. In this context, the act of reaching out for the purse, soon after eating, might seem a bit odd.

As a society in transition, dealing with the whole new culture of eating out, is actually gnawing at most young Bhutanese in different ways. Here too rightly so, because there is no blueprint as to what norm we should ‘adopt’ with regard to payment. Keeping asides the faux pas of dining itself, the task is to understand the different ‘schools’ currently being established for ‘payment’ methods in Bhutan- albeit, sporadically and unconsciously.

I remember one evening at a cousin’s place; she had travelled out of the country with some colleagues and we were surmising about her trip to Phuket, Thailand. She mentioned that her colleagues were wonderful travel companions, specifically because each one believed in splitting the bill equally. For her and like so many others, this would be a welcome relief to have the awkward issue of payment ‘strategy’ established. This school of thought works mostly with young working professionals, and colleagues.

It adds another dimension though, when in a group, there is only one person who is elder to the rest or is the only opposite sex.  If older and senior by profession, it becomes a case of ‘looking out’ for the young ones, which might deter the splitting of bills. If of the only opposite sex, life is easier as the fairer one, though the issue of age might become a factor to what degree the split will be in one’s favour. This school also includes relatives and family friends; though status will be also an important factor.

Another school sticks to initial experiences, like the first time out with a new set of people, or friends of the one you are trying to woo. God forbid, you don’t want to come across as being tight fisted especially to the friends, let alone your object of interest. With newer set of people, generosity has always been an important, if not deciding factor, for the next stage towards anything.  Our ego plays a role in trying to prove that we are indeed worthy accessories to have. To emulate, my close friend’s then aspiring boyfriend used to foot most of our night out bills. Now when we reminiscence about the ‘crazy’ days, he always reminds us of the fact that we always managed to have the most expensive meals, and that we never kept our drinks inside of us long enough to do his spending justice.

And finally, among close friends- it is always a case of each friend footing bills at different times, and this eventually ‘scores out’ expenses, but strengthens friendship. One close friend of mine succinctly described that ‘money should never be given a status among close friends’. He went so far as to buttress his opinion with an anecdote; while he was studying abroad, in their study group there were three Americans and then him. Each one loved their daily dose of caffeine. But each one was only getting theirs during the study meetings.  One day my friend decided to buy coffee for all of them, which led to a trend of one buying coffee for everyone on different days. He explained that this was incredibly beneficial in creating camaraderie and building relations, and none of them was incurring a loss-a case of ‘scoring out’. For a highly individualist western society, an uncommon show of ‘community’ proved to be very effective.

For Bhutan, I say it’s still a work in progress- solely because it’s sporadic and does not include the larger Bhutanese population. I relate to all these schools of thought. It has been many reasons for chagrin- on days when I am fumbling for my purse in my sack-of-a bag, and somebody settles the bill, or when I sometimes foot an extremely large bill that eats into my monthly grocery budget.

Personally, I like to believe that in this regard I have laid my demons to rest; I offer when I can afford, but I draw my lines and go strictly dutch with mere acquaintances who have strangers in tow.

Each one will have to decide which school of thought to adopt, or mesh it all together and play it by ear. Having said that, we must not negate that there is still a section of Bhutanese society (a generation preceding us and the rural populations) who still doesn’t eat out. For them, eating out will mostly remain a theme associated to special occasions. Just the other day, I attended a spiritual talk given by Dzongsar Jamyang Kyentse, and he mentioned of a (western) disciple asking him the remedy to a ‘healthy, wealthy and happy’ life. The remedy he gave strikes even closer to home for us; he told the disciple to at least have three meals in a week at home- ‘you are healthy because of eating home cooked meals, wealthy because of money saved by eating in, and happy because you are healthy and wealthy.’

In the same line, I feel eating at home is relatively less stressful, and provides towards cementing relations with your near and dear ones. Plus, it keeps acid reflux at bay.  In retrospect, it is amazing how our parents got it right the first time around; by reserving eating out for special occasions, they have managed to add magic to celebrations.

And that is food for thought. Don’t worry, it’s on the house.

(The writer is a freelance journalist)

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