Change Comes From Within

27 Mar 2014

Our in-field SIV Gary Chia relates one of his biggest success stories during his nine-month volunteer placement as a youth development trainer in Bhutan, the country that has everyone talking about its citizens’ happiness levels.

Before I first entered Bhutan, I imagined a land where everyone is happy, where one walks for miles in beautiful landscapes surrounded by mountains and forests.

This is what some who have never visited Bhutan think it is like. The latter is true, and the Bhutanese are in general more laidback, more content and very much less consumed by the idea of material pursuits than others around the world. They appreciate simplicity. That in my opinion, makes them happier than other populations.

My nine-month stint in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, consisted of doing outreach and youth engagement at one of the education ministry’s youth centres. My contact with the youth on a daily basis, six days a week, taught me many valuable life lessons. The experiences have shaped me to become a better youth worker as well, and the skills will help me in my work back here in Singapore.

I was blessed to have met and worked with some of these youth very closely, and would like to share one of their stories in particular, in which I played a small role.

Nima Tshering was attending a basic Japanese language course at the Youth Centre when I first met him. I was introducing a sports coaching programme, designed to give free sports coaching to out-of-school youth, to the participants of the Japanese language class. Nima came up to me to sign up. He struck me as a reserved but very respectful young man.

We met again briefly the next day, when he was playing basketball at the youth centre. He greeted me warmly and we spoke about the sports coaching programme. He seemed excited about it.

Yet for the next two weeks, I did not see Nima at the Youth Centre for his Japanese language class or the Sports Coaching Programme. When I did bump into him eventually, he told me he was busy, but I sensed that he wasn’t quite telling the whole truth. I wanted to chat with him more, so we went to the music room of the Youth Centre. There, he saw a couple of old electric guitars and some broken drums and said that he loves playing the guitar. I invited him to come in the next day to play music, and he turned up as scheduled. I thought to myself: “He isn’t as busy as he said he was.” So I asked him again why he was not coming for any of the classes. He finally revealed that he wasn’t able to follow the pace of the Japanese language class, and was afraid that the volunteer would ask him questions in English. He wasn’t confident about his level of English. He also said that he didn’t like the coach that was conducting the basketball coaching programme, even though he enjoys basketball.

I felt a connection with this young man and thought that I could work with him more closely to help him with his confidence level. I also wondered why he didn’t seem to be working or attending school. But first, I needed to get to know him better.

Over the next six months, I got to know Nima well and we developed a close bond. He shared his background with me. After his father passed away when he was eight, his mother became depressed and turned to alcohol. As the family was poor, Nima and his three siblings dropped out of school at a young age. From then on, he had to depend on himself and had little guidance growing up. He was sent to live with relatives but was ill-treated and ran away. He took on odd jobs to survive and was even homeless for a period of time. As he grew older, he made friends with those from similar backgrounds and they formed a gang – a “brotherhood” as he calls it.

With his strong leadership qualities and influence over the rest, he quickly rose to become the leader of the gang. They regularly fought with rival gangs and he even beat up policemen on several occasions. As a result of these activities, he was jailed thrice. He and his gang members also abused drugs and alcohol.

When I met Nima, he had just been released from prison, having served an 18-month sentence for assault. He was ready to change his life and was glad that I was there to guide and mentor him. I realised that beneath the tough exterior was a very sensitive and compassionate soul. Nima would always be the first to sense if I wasn’t feeling fine or was having a bad day. And he would make it a point to cheer me up. He would also stop by the side of the road to remove live insects from his path, to prevent them from getting trampled, and was a vegetarian by choice for this same reason – to not kill animals. This wasn’t something you would normally expect from a gang leader.

On one occasion, I asked to meet Nima in the evening at the youth centre. When he came, he had some bruises on his knuckles and had a cut on his face. He told me that he had just gotten into a fight and was on the verge of tears. He explained that he was provoked and, after the incident, was left feeling guilty about being involved in yet another fighting incident. After we reviewed things together, it was clear that Nima had issues controlling his anger, and would often act out aggressively when provoked. However, it was also clear that he felt remorse toward his actions and wanted to change. I had faith that he would be able to do it, if we continued to work together.

Initially, our conversations always revolved around his ex-gang activities and how good he was at fighting. I wanted Nima to find his strengths in other areas and to push him to find more positive activities. He had a good voice and a talent for music. I got him and his friends to come round to the youth centre to practice playing music regularly. And I searched for platforms for them to perform, to showcase their talent.

Being a close-knit society, people knew one another well and so it was rather easy for me to find out where they could perform. The only problem was – the music scene was very small and there were very few opportunities available. Nevertheless, with the help of a few friends I had made in Bhutan, we managed to slot a few of our budding youth musicians into small gigs at various events. Though the audience at these events was often sparse, it gave them an opportunity to perform in front of others. Nima was especially appreciative of such gestures, as he said it helped him build his self-confidence and self-esteem. He didn’t know it, but it also showcased his talent and potential in music.

Being a natural leader, Nima would often be the one to organise music practice for his friends, and I used this trait of his to good effect. I made him responsible for getting everyone together for practice sessions, and to remind them to turn up for performances.

I would also make it a point to correct Nima’s English, as I wanted him to learn to speak better so that he would not have to feel shy about his level of English anymore. As he grew in confidence, he was able to converse in English more comfortably, to the point of speaking in English with strangers and foreigners, something he revealed he would never have done previously. When my friends and family came to visit, I would ask Nima to be an informal guide for them, to practice speaking in English and be comfortable in front of strangers. They would always remark afterwards what a fine young man he was, and could not believe that he was once a violent individual.

Nima has made a commitment to stop smoking, taking drugs of any kind, and to abstain from alcohol. He also avoids going to the town centre as much as possible as he is afraid that he might bump into old enemies or his ex-gang members, and would be lured back into his previous lifestyle. As I journeyed with this young man closely for almost eight months, I realised how difficult his journey really was. For a young man to emerge from prison and consciously choose to live his life in a way completely different from the past, away from close friends, can’t be an easy task. I’m very proud of his commitment to change and his transformation thus far. He has taught me the true meaning of commitment and perseverance, and, through him, I too have rekindled my passion for music and to push through with my own resolutions. Since returning to Singapore, I have decided to become fully vegetarian, an undertaking I’ve always wanted to do but never had the resolve.

These days, Nima spends his time as a volunteer of Harmony Youth Support Group, a volunteer group at the youth centre. He coaches other youths who are keen on guitar-playing and is in charge of the music programme there, which we set up together. In his free time, he plays basketball and enjoys taking long walks to clear his mind. He ensures that he sets aside time each day to practice music and compose songs. He dreams one day of enrolling in a music school to further his music career and to be a successful musician. He also spends time at home with his mother, and cooks regularly for her.

He wants to share his story with others so that they don’t take the same destructive path that he did.

“What I want to say to youths like myself – change comes from within. As young people, you have lots of time to change. If you think that it is cool to be part of a gang, or to take drugs and alcohol, then you might lose your life or end up in jail early. If you want to experience true freedom, then you have to free yourself from all these negative things and behaviour. Parents and adults have to show your care and concern for your children, and try to understand what they are going through. Give them guidance and encouragement and also give them time to change.”

Nima and I continue to keep in touch through Facebook and phonecalls and I occasionally lend my support and advice when I feel the need arises. I’m also monitoring the progress of the music programme and hope to grow it further in future, to reach out to even more youths in Thimphu.

Composing music at the Youth Centre


Sharing his knowledge of guitar-playing with other youths

Open Mic Event – with budding musicians groomed at the youth centre

Performance at the closing of the 2013 Summer Vacation Programme

As a guest performer in Draktsho Vocational School’s annual concert – a school for children and youth with special needs
Nima’s family in full support. From L to R: 2nd elder sister, Nephew, Younger brother, Mother, Nima, Eldest sister, Youngest niece


As a volunteer at the 7th Children’s & Youth Festival 2013, Thimphu

Helping those in need - At the patient guest house in Jigme Dorji Wangchuk National Referral Hospital (JDWNRH), Thimphu

On a hike in Paro 

*Notice how much he smiles these days.

This account is contributed by Gary Chia, In-field SIV for the Youth Development Trainer project in Bhutan.

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