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KAI RYSSDAL: Here’s a sentence you’ve probably never heard before. There were parliamentary elections in Bhutan today. Yesterday the tiny Himalayan country was an absolute monarchy. Today it’s the world’s newest democracy. Bhutan’s the place where instead of gross domestic product they measure gross national happiness. Economic reform actually came before today’s big political change. Chances are there’s going to be more of it too, whether or not the Bhutanese know what they’re in for.
Marketplace’s Lisa Napoli has visited Bhutan twice over the past year. A couple of weeks ago she played host herself.
LISA NAPOLI: My friend Ngawang had never seen the ocean.
NGAWANG: Oh, I’m enjoying the beach, yeah. It’s hot.
Ngawang’s 23. Back in landlocked Bhutan, she’s a DJ.
NGAWANG: You’re listening to Kuzoo FM 105, the voice of the youth of Bhutan.
Ngawang had never been to this country, so her vision of it came from movies and television, which were only allowed into Bhutan nine years ago. She thought everyone here would look pretty much the same: tan and fit and rich. Even though I explained to her beforehand that I live in a one-bedroom apartment, she didn’t really believe me. She had something a little more Hollywood in mind.
NGAWANG: I thought that it’s like one of the movies which I have seen, Edward Scissorhands, where they have all the small plots of houses with all lawns and then the parking garage, and I thought that maybe you will have a maid to cook for you and all, but I was extremely wrong.
Not everyone in Bhutan has a maid, or two or three, like Ngawang’s family does. Most people in Bhutan couldn’t afford a plane ticket to the United States. Since she lives with her parents, and her family is well-off, Ngawang can live on her salary of a $100 a month quite well. She uses most of it to pay for her cell phone. Here, in America, Ngawang was shocked at how much things cost. We’re in a discount store looking at a package of socks for her niece.
NGAWANG: How much is it?
NAPOLI: Two dollars.
NGAWANG: Two dollars is 80 rupees. It is expensive for us.
NAPOLI: Is it?
Ngawang’s view of the U.S. economy was as much a Hollywood fantasy as her take on my apartment. She figured everyone here made a U.S.-styled fortune and prices were the same as back in Bhutan. She thought she’d find work, maybe in an office, and cash in on that for a while. What she didn’t get was the concept of the work visa.
NGAWANG: Well, before I came here, I always had a concept of thinking that it’s very easy to get the job out here. Like we have these people going from Bhutan saying that they are going to work in the U.S. I always thought that they might be working in the offices, but when I came here I came to know that they work as a babysitter, as a nanny.
After a few days, the reality and the homesickness hit. The fantasy of living here wore off, but the wonder of being in a new place had not. A thousand times during her stay she repeated . . .
NGAWANG: That’s cool.
I took her to the largest Whole Foods in California. The quantity of food blew her mind, so did drive-thrus, vending machines, superhighways, the sheer variety of cars — they all amazed her.
NAPOLI: A week ago you hadn’t seen . . .
NGAWANG: The ocean, the traffics, the dishwasher, tall buildings.
And as tech-savvy as she is, the automatically flushing toilet at our office just about did her in.
NGAWANG: It freaked me out, you know. I thought, I’ll flush it. I got up. I put my zip up, and then it automatically went. I was, yeah, like scared for first time.
She adjusted to the toilets, but never to the pace of an American newsroom. Still, after coming to work with me for a week, she found herself catching Marketplace fever.
NGAWANG: When banks compete you win.
NAPOLI: Do you even know what that means?
NGAWANG: Well, I don’t know, but what I feel is like when the banks, when they are competing, you win.
NAPOLI: But what, in Bhutan there are only two banks, but do they compete with each other?
NGAWANG: No, because it’s both government and no competitions.
In fact, that worried Ngawang a bit, the idea that the government doesn’t run the banks, but private companies do. She wondered, how you could trust them. There were a lot of things that didn’t make sense to Ngawang about America, but one thing she came to understand is that there’s no place like home.
NAPOLI: If a friend of yours said, “You’re crazy. You were there. You didn’t have to come back here.” What would you say to them?
NGAWANG: I’ll tell them that, “Why don’t you go and try yourself.”
Sounds like democracy may come easy to Bhutan.
In Los Angeles, I’m Lisa Napoli for Marketplace.