The concept of “awkward silence” does not exist in Bhutan. I realize this as I walk with my new 16-year-old sister Tashi to bring tea to our family who is working in the field. The walk takes about thirty minutes, during which my thoughts are interrupted only by Tashi’s occasional reminder for me to “be careful,” one of our mother’s—ama’s—favorite things to say to me. Here in the village of Domkhar, I do not feel the pressure to fill our time with small talk and phrases that would flow away with the soft wind.
However, I realize in the absence of talking, that the “silence” is not quiet at all. I am able to tune into the squelch of Tashi’s rain boots as we step through the mud, the sigh of a frightened crow’s wings as it flies off a branch, the wind filtering through the willow trees, the distant mooo of a brown-spotted cow, the babbling brook pumping water to spin a prayer wheel.
A lot more can be learned in these moments not filled with the mindless chatter that we often engage in back home. This past week, I have grown closer to my homestay family even though we are seldom able to use words that each other understand (without the help of our “translator,” Tashi). Despite the fact that my five-year-old homestay sister, Pema, and I can scarcely communicate with words, we have formed a bond that goes beyond the language barrier.
In the first two days, Pema was filled with shyness, peeking around her mother’s skirt to stare at the stranger in her home. But over the past week, she has opened up to me in a way I never expected. She now clutches my hand wherever we go and my time is filled with silly card games which I try not to let her win. I make silly faces at her and she smiles and calls me “achay,” the Dzongkha word for older sister. Her mastery of English is about the same as mine of Dzongkha and we giggle as we both count to ten. One, two, three, four, five. Chi, ni, sum, shee, nga.
I reign my thoughts back in and stare out into the cloud-blanketed mountains. Maybe silence isn’t so awkward after all.