The worldliness of an overtime worker
This is the 14th instalment of Diaspora Diaries, a regular series in Nepali Times with stories of Nepalis living and working abroad.
I went to Qatar in 2003 with a singular goal -- to earn enough so I could be well established when I returned to Nepal.
For someone from my background, that was an ambitious goal, since I had grown up with nothing. I lost my mother when I was three years old. Three of my siblings were scattered across families after my father remarried.
My maternal grandmother who lived in Okhaldhunga took me in, and I was told that she picked me because my face closely resembled my mother's. Perhaps it gave her some semblance of having her daughter close by.
Read also: Migration not a wish, but necessity for Nepalis, Shristi Karki
Later, I was sent to stay with my uncle in Kathmandu. Their son was very young, and I could take care of him while also attending school there. You could call it a win-win situation.
Or at least that was how all the adults justified this move to themselves. Deep inside, though, a part of me still hurts because I know that I never had anyone to really call my own who was looking out for me selflessly.
After finishing my SLC, I took diploma training in automobile maintenance. With this course, my ultimate goal was to get a job abroad. And before long in 2003, at age 19, I found myself on a plane to Qatar for my first real job. I would spend the next nine years there.
I worked at a store selling automobile parts, and was lucky because it was an indoor job, with AC. Even when I spent a few minutes outside, whether it was to install a car part, or to walk the short distance from where the company bus dropped us off to my room, I would be drenched in sweat.
Read also: The heat is killing us, Sonia Awale
I was grateful I did not have to work outdoors in that desert heat. I had heard of other workers in labour intensive jobs outside, who toiled in the scorching heat, destroyed their health and used up all their savings after returning just to pay medical bills.
My singular focus was to earn. So I worked hard, did not take more than one day off a month. I took all the overtime I could, even in the evenings or weekends. Earning more was like being addicted to drugs. I pushed myself to work harder so I could meet my savings target.
When I first went to Qatar, my basic salary was 700 riyal and by the time I left, it was 2,500 riyal. I was happy. Back then I used to feel lucky for being paid for overtime, but I had not realised that I was being ripped off. Overtime hours, as per the law, require you to be paid higher than your normal wages, which I was not. No one told me about this rule.
There were 12 people in my room when I first started out, all sleeping on triple decker beds. I am glad I did not have the upper bunk because my roommate used to complain how it always felt like there was an earthquake every time someone below him moved even slightly.
As I moved up in my job, I had fewer roommates. In retrospect, we would be so tired after a long day at work that we would just pass out and be oblivious to the fact that we were in a crowded room with a dozen people, or be put off by the lack of hygiene and privacy.
I tried not to be bothered by the inconvenience because I wanted to go back to Nepal the minute I had earned enough. Qatar was never home, and I never tried to make it a home.
I did not join diaspora groups, I did not travel around much, and I kept my circle small. A local customer who had tried to haggle about the cost of a motor part once rudely reminded me, “Your only identity, proof of existence here is your passport. If we destroy it, you are non-existent.”
That threat still rings in my ears. They tried to use their power over us to keep us in our place. My only consolation was that this was a transient sacrifice that would pay in the long run.
And it did get me to a better place. Back in the 2000s property prices in Kathmandu were cheaper. I put all my money in land, and that value has now multiplied 30 times. There is a crop of us early migrant workers who really lucked out investing in land in Kathmandu.
Others who did not prioritise savings, were unable to save due to their personal finances, or those who chose to put their money in the bank, did not benefit much. The newer ones do not have the same option as I did, since land prices in Kathmandu have soared. So, I do consider myself lucky as I have managed to break out of the poverty that I was born into, and my children will now be all right.
Aside from investing in land, I also tried to start a motorcycle workshop, a tomato farm and a furniture store. But these businesses failed for one reason or another.
My last resort has been to take a loan to buy a car, and drive people around based on referrals and contacts with car rental companies. This has been surprisingly more lucrative than anything else I have ventured.
It is different working in Nepal, since there is a greater sense of pride in my job. I like telling tourists whom I drive around about Nepal, and give them a good experience — not just so I get a good referral, but also because I want them to have a good impression about my country.
Working in Nepal, I think beyond myself. In a foreign land, my narrow focus was to just earn and leave as soon as I could. Nothing else mattered, there was no sense of attachment to the place.
Perhaps that is why, when I left Qatar after spending nine long years after being sure that I could finally make it on my own in Nepal, I did so without remorse or nostalgia.
Translated from a conversation in Nepali.
Diaspora Diaries is a regular column in Nepali Times providing a platform for Nepalis to share their experiences of living, working, studying abroad. Authentic and original entries can be sent to [email protected] with ‘Diaspora Diaries in the subject line.