"Money is not everything, but you need money for everything"

A Nepali geologist’s career takes a new turn after years flipping burgers in Dubai

This is the 42nd edition of Diaspora Diaries, a regular series in Nepali Times with stories of Nepalis who have lived or are working abroad.

I still remember the blast of hot air that enveloped me when the airport door slid open at Dubai airport that afternoon 20 years ago.

I was immediately worried whether it was the right decision to go to the UAE for work. I was there to flip burgers, much to the dismay of my parents who had invested in my education.

But my Master's in Geology from India did not amount to much in Nepal. Oil companies in India prioritised locals, so I had to return to Nepal.

I still remember entering the premises of the Department of Geology and Mines in Kathmandu with the hopes of getting a job. But the lethargy and broken furniture there put me off, I did not want to work in such a place.

I then took on odd jobs, teaching math and science. My father suggested I could be a lecturer in geology, but how could I inspire people to join a field in which I saw no potential for myself?

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They say money is not everything, but you need money for everything. So, after two years, I found myself interviewing for a job at Burger King in the UAE.

The country manager had come to Kathmandu himself for the interview. He told me that I could achieve the same success as another Nepali he had employed in the UAE if I worked hard. My educational background and language skills would be an advantage, he said.

But he told me to be realistic about my expectations. I would have to be ready to do even menial tasks, like cleaning restrooms.

Foreign workers are usually housed in labour camps in the UAE’s industrial areas, segregated from the rest of the population. I was lucky to be put up in a flat in the middle of the city on the 16th floor of a high rise.

In the morning after my arrival in Dubai I marvelled at how high we were, and watched the cars below that looked like toys.

At Burger King, everything was by the book. There were specifications and instructions for all functions, from how to wash hands to how to thaw condiments. As a science student I was intrigued.

It was not easy, especially in the early days. Standing for nine hours a day as a crew member in a fast-paced environment can be stressful, especially if you are not used to working at all.

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Once the restaurant opened for business, customer flow was constant. In the beginning, I could barely stand by the end of the day and my hands would be stiff. It felt like every cell in my feet was hurting.

Even on my days off, I visited the restaurant to read the Burger King manual like a textbook. I found it fascinating how specific it was about standards covering practically every aspect of the burger making process.

Perhaps my science degree came in handy after all, helping me grasp details faster than the average employee. I soon became the go-to guy at work. I got 100% in all internal exams required for the job.

Doing well in these exams or getting awards in the company positioned me for quicker promotions, but once you hit managerial posts, certificates and training did not matter as it was all about the outlets' performance and numbers.

I once caught a cold as my body wasn’t able to handle the frequent changes between the AC inside and the outside heat. Back in Nepal, this would have been enough to keep me in bed.

There, I somehow made it to work and got so busy that by the time I was done with my shift, the cold would be gone. I worked myself and my cold to death.

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My hard work paid off. When I was promoted to Assistant Manager in two years, I was described as the fastest-developing crew member to assistant manager in Burger King Middle East history.

I still recall reading that email in tears right before my shift started. It helped that there were managers who were genuinely invested in my growth.

Duty meals were free for employees, so I ended up eating burgers every day from 2003 to 2009. I once calculated that I must have eaten about 2,028 of them — but the hard work kept me from gaining weight.

Burger King gave me more than just a good job. It is where I fell in love with my wife, who was also making a future for herself in the same restaurant.

I then jumped ship to Subway where I worked as an Area Manager for two years. This experience was different because Subway did not have the same strict specifications as Burger King, and gave me room to apply what I had learnt there.

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I was then hired by the Swedish chain Max Burger to establish a presence in the UAE. Its operating style relied on common sense rather than strict specifications. It had the same feel as grandmoms who run kitchens using intuition and common sense, which I quite liked.

I had experience handling high volumes, including full destination restaurants with drive through, delivery and takeout. I was also a certified restaurant trainer.

As someone who had started out with a monthly salary of AED900, I was now making over 12,000. I had the savings and the skills, but like all migrant workers, I was working for someone else and had started questioning myself – till when?

Whenever we came to Nepal on breaks and satisfied our momo and chow mein cravings, we would be on the lookout for burgers. But we were never satisfied with the burgers here, which is what gave us the idea of starting a burger place in Nepal.

My parents were getting older, and my father's health had started failing. As an only child, I decided to head home. My wife and son returned first, and I followed.

I got on the plane to Nepal with no regrets about leaving the place I had worked in for 11 years. I set up Burger Shack in Nepal in 2014. My parents, who had initially questioned why I was going abroad to make burgers, now started expressing concern about why I wanted to sell only burgers and not momos.

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Despite my experience in three fast food restaurants overseas, running a restaurant in Nepal was a different proposition altogether. Even finding the right kind of buns and patties was a challenge. I had to improvise every step of the way.

Fortunately, business is doing well and we now have three branches including one franchise. Customers say we are the closest thing to McDonald’s in Nepal.

Had I not gone overseas for work, I would probably still be doing something on my own — perhaps a small grocery shop or a momo restaurant. But the experience in the UAE gave me capital and skills. I am the first person in my risk-averse family to start a business.

I learnt in those few years abroad more practical lessons than I did from my formal education. It was important to pick up technical skills, and use them to build a niche for myself in Nepal.

Going overseas means access to a platform and new possibilities, but in the final analysis it boils down to what you make of it.

Dubai feels like a dream now.

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Translated from a conversation with the author. Diaspora Diaries is a regular column in Nepali Times providing a platform to share experiences of living, working, studying abroad. Authentic and original entries can be sent to [email protected]

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