Leave Your Job and Sing Songs From the Hilltop: Orientalism in “Lunana: a Yak in the Classroom”

Set in the south Asian nation of Bhutan, “Lunana: a Yak in the Classroom” tells the story of Ugyen, a teacher who aspires to move to Australia to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a singer. However, to align with his duties to the Bhutanese government, he must complete his fourth year of mandatory service teaching in Lunana, home to one of the world’s most remote schools.

Right away, I noticed the strong juxtaposition between a city kid like Ugyen and this remote town in the Orient. Ugyen spends essentially the entire journey complaining about its difficulty and pondering how, exactly, people survive in the middle of nowhere. He almost never takes out his headphones, completely disengaged with his natural surroundings and embraced in the material world.

But as he spends more time interacting with Lunana and its people, Ugyen starts to realize that they are not just a bunch of other-worldly “savages” — the people of Lunana value his presence and value teaching him the legends of their culture. For example, the yak is a motif that is a symbol of love and survival — they sing songs about it, they honor the dead with it, they start fires with its dung to cook food. The students of Lunana expose Ugyen to a different, engaging culture, and in return they value his own lessons through his teaching. This moment of realization in Ugyen’s first few days is the catalyst in his decision to stay in Lunana rather than panic and leave at first sight.

Ugyen still struggles to see Lunana outside of the other-worldly orientalist lens — he has nothing to teach the students with, no electricity, and albeit he is learning, there is still a disconnect between the modern world and the orient in several instances — his students do not know what a car is, and after he runs out of teaching supplies, he must have more sent from the nearest civilization. While learning the traditional songs of Lunana, he is told to “leave his job and sing songs from the hilltop.” While the citizens of Lunana imagined the “hilltop” as the physical hilltop that people sing songs from, one cannot help but imagine Australia — where Ugyen planned to go to become a singer before being sent off to Lunana; the place he thought success was the most possible.

When wintertime comes, Ugyen has the ability to fulfill his lifelong dream, but instead of the “it’ll just be a few months” attitude we saw at the beginning of the film, we see him having trouble leaving. In spite of the disconnect, Ugyen did everything he could for his students, and they let him know. The students embrace of Ugyen as their teacher helped him embrace the culture of Lunana, and even as he heads off for the “hilltop” of Australia, he sings the songs of Lunana.

And I know, in this final scene of the film, Ugyen felt he was doing good — the reasons the filmmakers showed the altitude of each place Ugyen visited (Lunana being the highest; Sydney, Australia the lowest) was to demonstrate that Australia isn’t a “hilltop” after all. As Ugyen got further away from civilization, the altitude literally and figuratively increased. “Lunana: a Yak in the Classroom” demonstrates orientalism’s affect on civilization, and how one can somehow become more enlightened by getting away from the modern world.

Edgar the Survivor

In the beginning of King Lear, Gloucester establishes Edgar as his legitimate son and Edmund, born from a different mother, as his bastard son, meaning Edmund will not be able to collect any inheritance. This creates an inevitable conflict between the two brothers that ignites after Lear gives away his land and begins his slow and painful path toward death. Edmund convinces Edgar that he has been banished by Lear, then accusing Edgar of a violent crime in order to receive inheritance.

And so it began: the humiliating time in Edgar’s life where he just tried to establish himself as a loved and wanted person rather than someone who serves no purpose, manipulated by the promise of money. Edgar can’t control the fact that his brother can’t get any inheritance, but instead of urging Edgar to help him, Edmund simply tries to end Edgar’s life.

“Who gives anything to Poor Tom … that hath laid knives under his pillow and halters in his pew, set ratsbane by his porridge, made him proud of heart to ride on a bay trotting horse over four-inched bridges to course his own shadow for a traitor?”

Edgar, III.iv.58-61

Now disguised as Poor Tom to save himself from execution, Edgar has a way to articulate how, as the legitimate child, he has for his entire life served as nothing but an example of power and has been taken advantage of by his younger brother. As someone born into wealth, he would be deemed a traitor, but disguised as a beggar, Edgar would attract pity through this language.

Throughout the story, Edgar remains in disguise, a peacekeeper among the conflict that Lear has kickstarted. He helps Gloucester, who has also been deemed a traitor and had his eyes plucked out for his compassion towards Lear, die at peace among the chaos:

“Give me your hand. Far off methinks I hear the beaten drum. Come, father, I’ll bestow you with a friend.”

Edgar, iv.vi.314-316

Edgar not only saves his father, but he saves himself as well, choosing the perfect moment to reveal himself to Edmund when the war is lost. Killing his brother in a fight, Edgar takes revenge for all the suffering Edmund has caused him. One of the sole survivors of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Edgar gets a second chance at living an impactful life.

In class, the motif my group tracked was the storm, and a central theme that we took away from it was that when one endures suffering, they see personal growth in the end. Edgar, who loses his home, disguises himself as a beggar to save his life, and watches his own father die, ultimately survives, and he can grow past the stage in his life where his only purpose was to demonstrate power and inherit money.

“The Blacker the Berry” Paints Vivid Picture of American History

The roots of racism in America can be traced back to the 1500s, when the first enslaved people were brought along the Middle Passage from West Africa to the Caribbean Islands and what would become the southeastern United States. The institution of slavery lasted for more than three centuries in the Western Hemisphere, with the importation of enslaved people to this area of the globe ending in 1808 and the practice of enslaving people ending shortly after the American Civil War. But racism in America, extreme prejudice taken against African-American people, has existed up until today, even through the Jim Crow and Civil Rights Movement era.

Given this context, when an artist writes a song about institutionalized racism in America, it is difficult for it not to sound cliche or dissolve into the basic moral of “everyone is human and should be treated equally.” But Kendrick Lamar’s The Blacker the Berry creates raw images of America’s institutionalized racism from both sides that make the song last in the listener’s mind as poetry.

The song begins with an interlude that seems to be from the perspective of a white slaveowner. At the end of each line, the perspective switches to that of a black person being sold into slavery.

Everything black, I don’t want black (they want us to bow) / I want everything black, I ain’t need black (down to our knees) / Some white, some black, I ain’t mean black (and pray to the God) / I want everything black (we don’t believe)

The Blacker the Berry, Interlude

Each line of the first stanza begins with a white slaveowner who wants to purchase an enslaved person — he “want(s) black” but at the same time does not — and ends with the perspective of a black person thinking the thoughts the slaveowner doesn’t want them to think. The black person knows the manipulation and unfair labor they are about to endure, but cannot speak up to the white slaveowner, who makes all the choices and holds all the power. The idea of songwriting from the perspectives of the oppressor and the oppressed, rather than from a modern-day perspective, is what makes this song vivid poetry.

Lamar’s lyrics shift through time into the first verse, when the black man is a free, independent person who thinks what he wants to think and says what he wants to say. In this verse, he seems to being prosecuted for a crime illustrated in the bridge (“six in the morn / fire in the street”).

I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015 / Once I finish this witnesses will convey just what I mean / Been feelin’ this way since I was sixteen, came to my senses / You never liked us anyway, fuck your friendship, I meant it

The Blacker the Berry, Verse 1

Back in the present, Lamar portrays the speaker as someone who is angry at the treatment of black people throughout history. He seems to be predicting what the white man is about to say (“I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015”). He responds by telling the white man that he has come to his senses since his youth. This heated exchange conveyed through the mind of the oppressed illustrates modern-day racial stereotypes without directly saying them.

Every song is a poem, as long as it does not preach morals by giving the listener direct thoughts from the lyricist’s mind. A song is what you make of it, but you can only make something of it if it forces you to think about the lyricist’s emotions and motive for writing the song.

This is what “The Blacker the Berry” does, and this is what makes track 13 of “To Pimp a Butterfly” pure poetry. Switching back and forth between past and present, Lamar forces the listener not to hyperfocus on present-day racial prejudice (as songs like Lil Baby’s The Bigger Picture do), but to think about the centuries-long institution that made this racial prejudice come to be.

Continuing to switch back and forth between past (“Woi, we feel a whole heap of pain, cah’ we black / And man a say they put me inna chains, cah’ we black”) and present (“You hate me, don’t you? … Muscle cars like pull ups, show you what these big wheels ’bout”), Lamar calls out white people on their generational oppression of black people, pointing to the success black men such as him have today.

Before the outro, Lamar raps his final verse with defiance, establishing pride in his culture and racism as a generational issue.

The plot is bigger than me, it’s generational hatred / It’s genocism, it’s grimy, little justification / I’m African-American, I’m African / I’m Black as the heart of a fuckin’ Aryan”

The Blacker the Berry, Verse 3

In Lamar’s last verse, he creates a call to action for the future, implementing all tenses into an issue that has defined American history.

Love and Migration

In Exit West, we meet two protagonists who are almost foils of each other. Saeed was raised on faith and is attached to his family – he learned how to pray from a young age and lived at home as long as he could. Nadia moved out of her family’s home at the first chance she got – which, as an unmarried woman in this country, is extremely risky. She wears a full-length robe not to practice her religion, but “so men don’t f–ck with me” (17).

“The following evening helicopters filled the sky … Saeed watched them with his parents from their balcony. Nadia watched them from her rooftop, alone.”

Page 35

Why Saeed would think he is compatible with a partner like Nadia is, at first, confusing. However, as their country gets more war-torn, it is clear that every civilian needs to seek refuge in another country. Coming from a man with such an honest background, in a country on the brink of civil war, Saeed’s first impressions of Nadia are simply: wow.

“He watched as she walked out to the student parking area and there, instead of covering her head with a black cloth, she donned a black motorcycle helmet … and rode off, disappearing with a controlled rumble into the gathering dusk.”

Page 5

Saeed is bewildered by Nadia’s confidence during times of extreme turmoil. And throughout Exit West, their journey across the globe escaping this turmoil brings them closer together as they depend on each other to find their footing in new situations — Saeed without his parents, and Nadia as an independent woman in a new country.

Meursault and Gatsby: Dueling Existentialists

I wasn’t in class during the discussion on existentialism. However, just by being there in the following days, finishing The Stranger, and skimming the overviews on existentialism, I have been able to capture a vague idea of what it means to be an existentialist: seeing absurdity in your own existence and in the life you have worked so hard to create, realizing everyone’s ultimate fate is death, and living the rest of your life not according to societal expectations of people like you. You exit existence defiantly.

I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I only had to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.

– Meursault, page 123

In The Stranger, we are never truly sure what causes Meursault to live his life the way he does. Maybe it’s when his mother moves into a home that he starts to see absurdity in trying so hard to succeed – his mother moves into a home because he can no longer financially support her, after all. All we truly know is that Meursault lives his life without a care, trying to find pleasure in being detached. As a result, he is easily manipulated, resulting in his downfall and existentialist realization that all humans have the same fate: death.

Another way I have grasped a small understanding of the concept of existentialism is by reading these blog posts. I have seen connections to Stephen King and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby — which makes me recall reading Gatsby in AP Lang last year.

In the end, Gatsby lives an existential life, albeit different from Meursault’s: he inherits wealth, becomes a huge Mafia man, reunites with his first love, Daisy, and pretty much throws everything away in order to try and win her back. The focal point of all this is him buying a huge, ornate mansion right across from Daisy and her husband. Although Gatsby is a big man with lots of money and resources, it seems that Daisy is the only reason he exists. He wastes all of his money throwing huge parties in his mansion in order to attract Daisy, detached from the reality that they will not end up running off and starting a new life together – in fact, after Myrtle Wilson is killed, Daisy and Tom run off and Gatsby is shot by Mr. Wilson.

In The Stranger, we see existentialist parallels to Gatsby — Meursault finds pleasure in being detached and his only purpose is to follow the mundane orders of his peers — attend his mother’s funeral, agree to the idea of marrying his girlfriend (“Well, we could if she wanted to”), and ultimately, kill the two native Algerians, leading to his execution. It seems that all of Meursault’s angers with society come out when he is talking with the Chaplain the day before his execution:

What did other people’s deaths or a mother’s love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter to me when we’re all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him who also called themselves my brothers?

– Meursault, page 121

And while both learn to accept their fate, unlike Gatsby, Meursault dies with an overwhelming sense of pride in getting out what he truly thinks.

Who is Mersault Anyway?

“The Stranger” begins with a long, drawn-out summary of Mersault’s mother’s (Maman’s) death and the days that followed it. It’s not an anecdote, it doesn’t have any emotional detail. Mersault sees the death of his mother as more of an inconvenience than anything – he seems apologetic when he tells his boss that he needs time off work, telling him “‘It’s not my fault'” (1). During the procession, he seems more focused on simple grievances like the heat and how long the walk is than anything else. He returns from his trip, checks another thing off his to-do list, and returns to his normal life as if nothing significant has just happened. He acts like an outlier, simply an observer of the raw emotion around him even though the death holds the most significance in himself.

Even throughout the first part, Mersault has no characteristic of his own; when he is alone, he just sits by his window and observes. He is truly the embodiment of who we would consider a “stranger:” someone who exists and has his own life outside of his little interaction with us that we can’t imagine or understand, because we simply don’t know him.

The detail that stuck out to me most was how after his late mother moved into a home, he packed his entire apartment into one room. “It was just the right size when Maman was here,” he says. “Now it’s too big for me … I live in just one room now, with some saggy straw chairs, a wardrobe whose mirror has gone yellow, a dressing table, and a brass bed. I’ve let the rest go” (21). Another object that Mersault has kept in his tiny room, however, is a “notebook where I put things from the papers that interest me.”

Mersault describes putting an advertisement for a salt company into his notebook. And every other worn out object in his little room has one everyday use that helps him in his survival.

We don’t know anything about Mersault’s life. The salt advertisement that he puts into his notebook gives us absolutely no clue as to what his interests actually are. He has no forms of recreation or entertainment in his apartment – it’s all just basic necessities. Why is he showing no emotion or sense of reflection at his mother’s funeral?

In short, the first part of this novel gives us no insight into Mersault’s past. The reader cannot connect with him on a personal level, or make inferences as to why he lives the way he does. Evidently he had a strained relationship with his mother, but I want to know why. All I can say is that so far, the title has fit the character.