Nepal on my mind

“We are not in the Gulf permanently, we send money home every month, and we will eventually return. We should have the right to vote.”

This is the 46th instalment of Diaspora Diaries, a regular series in Nepali Times with stories of Nepalis living and working abroad.

During my first job in Qatar as a waiter it was clear that my lack of proper English would make it difficult for me to be promoted to front-office positions. 

There were Filipino, East European and Indian colleagues across the Gulf who came from much better backgrounds, had more polished English and could present themselves much better.

So for my second stint overseas, this time in a luxury hotel in Kuwait, I opted for back-end jobs in food and safety hygiene. I figured my linguistic weakness would not hold me back. 

I had learnt the English alphabet only in Grade 4 by the flickering light of an oil lamp in my village in Bhojpur. I dropped out of school so my siblings could study. I grew up helping my parents with household chores and farming, school was never a priority.

Later, I worked as a lab boy in the biology departments of high schools in Nepal. Like everyone else, I chose foreign employment to improve my family’s living standard, Nepali wages were just not enough. 

I had the grit, ability to work hard and knowledge of my field, but it would be lack of communication skills that would hold me back in the hospitality sector.

Now, many years later, I have reached managerial positions in luxury hotels overseas. As part of a support department for kitchen and service, we are responsible for inventory, cleaning, sanitisation, store organisation and calibration of all equipment and ensure that they meet the highest hygiene standards. I manage 40-45 staff from different countries. But I may not have achieved all this had I insisted on getting front-end jobs.

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After working in Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Seychelles, I am once again headed back to Kuwait to work as a stewarding manager. I will be earning $2,100 (KWD 650) a month with additional benefits.

My foreign employment did not start well, it must be said. I left Nepal in 2007, to work in Qatar as a busboy. My salary was just $110 (QAR 400) then. I was cheated by the recruitment agent who made me sign a fake contract, but I could not go back to Nepal.

The supply company placed me in the catering section of a gas firm, and even though the salary was below what was promised it gave me a solid foundation in my area of work. 

Since then, I have worked in luxury hotels in multiple countries, but the hygiene standards in the oil and gas sector in Qatar were superior.

For us overseas migrant workers, it is important to manage our time and finances and think about the long term. Such planning requires constant reminders of why we are here, who we have left behind and that working abroad is temporary. 

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It is easy to splurge when there is cash without thinking of the future. Overlooking exercise or proper eating habits can affect our health in the long term.

One day, we will have to return, leaving all this behind with no social protection for future security.

My friends and I often wonder what we can do once we return to Nepal. One option that fits our background that might also have scope in Nepal’s hospitality sector is to train and supply hotel workers.

But that means leaving a well-paying, stable job for an uncertain entrepreneurial journey in Nepal. We have been away so long that it does carry immense risks. It is this uncertainty that keeps us renewing our contracts, or looking for a better job in another country.

The new generation of Nepalis who come to the Gulf or elsewhere are not limited as we were. The youth migrating now have it easier, they are better educated and already have degrees in hospitality management. They also have better exposure and language skills, and this is an advantage. But ultimately, it does boil down to job performance.

One of my early memories of being overseas is being formally recognised as Colleague of the Year among a staff of 900. This was a turning point in my career that gave me the positivity and energy to work harder and dream bigger.  

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The perception overseas that Nepalis lack management and leadership skills that other nationalities have is now being broken. There are Nepalis who are doing very well across the Gulf region.

It is important to have Nepalis in leadership positions, not just for our individual growth and finances, but also because it allows us to help other Nepalis to solve problems they encounter, especially as newcomers. 

There is chain migration that allows us to pull fellow Nepalis overseas from our communities that has been going on for decades, but there is also upward mobility where those of us doing well in leadership positions can open the way for more Nepalis to climb the ladder. 

Creating that positive perception of Nepalis in upper management positions is a priority. Leveraging networks to help others is an added bonus. 

One of my proudest moments was seeing immense potential in one of the staff I was managing in my team who was from Bangladesh. I recommended a fellow chef to take him under his wing and vouched for him as his manager. Today, he is a successful chef. 

I have learnt with time how important it is to be able to defend yourself at work or to be aware of the rules and policies in place. Often we fail to use existing rules that are in our favour because we are just unaware of them and are hesitant to speak up. 

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Labour laws in the Gulf countries are also changing, and have become more flexible. But how those changes affect us depends on our ability to make use of them. Of course, this also depends on what kind of employer we land.

In my job, I have witnessed the extreme luxury and wealth of our guests, and how easy they have it financially. I compare that to Nepalis like me who have to struggle every step of the way. 

I blame politics which has prevented Nepal from making the best use of our incredible natural and human resources. Yet, when I watch news from Nepal these days, there is little to be optimistic about. 

I hope that we will soon be allowed to vote in elections from overseas, so we too have a say about who should lead Nepal. We are not in the Gulf region permanently, we send money home every month, and we will eventually return. We should have the right to vote.

We spend a good chunk of our lives overseas to toil in difficult circumstances, far away from home. But it is as much about our families we leave behind. 

They give us the green signal to go abroad to work, while they take care of things at home in our absence. I believe families left behind do not get enough credit for the sacrifice they make. As for me, I owe it to my wife who has been a pillar of strength for me and someone who has supported my professional growth.

I keep reminding Nepalis overseas to stay connected with their families back home. It takes a lot of effort to make this journey of separation tolerable. It is easy to get lost in the daily grind.

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The lack of communication and distance can take a toll on mental health as well. The need to make a better living seems possible only in a foreign land, and that makes physical separation unavoidable. It is up to us to remain connected emotionally and virtually — after all they are just a phone call away. 

Translated from a conversation. Diaspora Diaries provides 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.