Proud to give back to Nepal

This is the 16th instalment of Diaspora Diaries, a regular series in Nepali Times with stories of Nepalis living and working abroad. 

Prakash Katuwal

My earliest memory from childhood is working on household chores at my father’s friend’s house in Jhapa while studying on the side. I had to wake up at 4AM, finish cleaning and washing and take the livestock out. I used to fall asleep in the grass as the goats grazed.

I went back to stay with my parents later. My father, a policeman, was posted in different parts of the country. This was pre-mobile, pre-internet days, so the only way to keep in touch was by mail. Many of my handwritten letters got lost because my father would have been transferred by the time the letters reached.

There was no wire transfer, so it was only when he came home on leave that my father brought his savings, sometimes after a year. This meant there were times when we did not have any cash, and my mother had to do odd jobs in the village while I took care of my younger siblings. She worked hard to raise us.

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I landed up in Darjeeling after my SLC exams, and was working as a security guard when I found out I had passed. I returned to Jhapa and then to Kathmandu to get higher education.

Living in poverty takes a toll on you, especially when you are of an impressionable age and observe how your financially better off classmates have it much easier. Sometimes, we had no food and had to eat wild roots. But now, those things are all distant memories.  

My parents had ancestral land in Chandragiri that they sold for Rs120,000. I am told the land is now worth Rs10 million. Still, in those days even that 120,000 went a long way to cover my family’s expenses and to build a small house.

In Kathmandu, I trained as a cook after a friend convinced me that there was a secure future in it. I started working at China and World (CW) restaurant in Kathmandu and the trajectory of my life finally began to change. For six months as a trainee, I worked 18 hours a day without any pay. My boss noticed my effort, and I got a paid position. This experience helped me get a job in Guangzhou, China where I worked for six years.

I toiled so hard in China that I often had bloodshot eyes out of stress and over-exhaustion. There were two other Nepalis in the restaurant along with Chinese employees. I did not speak or understand Cantonese, so it was challenging. I also learnt how strong work ethics and sincerity could be conveyed despite the language barrier.

Within a few months, my manager and colleagues started warming up to me and we had good rapport. I taught myself Cantonese, often relying on Nepali agents in China who were our customers at the restaurant. At 24, I returned to Nepal where I worked in a few hotels as a chef. I did apply for jobs in the Gulf and passed two interviews for Dubai-based positions, but turned them down as I was not satisfied with the salaries offered. In China, I was making up to Rs200,000 a month.  

With Covid, I lost my job at a hotel in Bara in Nepal. But I still had skills and savings so I started a home delivery service called Home Food. I cooked the food myself, and delivered it to customers. Business picked up quite well with 40 orders a day.

Soon, one of my mentors and guardians, Krishna Poudel with whom I had previously worked, expressed an interest in starting a Turkish restaurant in Kathmandu. I am now one of the shareholders of Alev Kebab Sultanate and also its chief chef. It has filled a niche in the market, and is doing quite well. The appeal of Turkish food goes beyond just its taste, there is art in the way the food is served.  

For someone from my background, this is a huge platform. The restaurant is exceptionally busy during evenings. Mornings are slower, which gives me time to think about what we can do better.

The two Nepali colleagues I had worked with in Guangzhou saw their future in China, so they had a different set of priorities. Nepalis who start as cooks there transition to become agents catering to the needs of the businessmen who come from all over the world who don’t have language skills to navigate the Chinese market. The earnings of agents are much better. But I did not want to stay abroad, and the experience there has opened up many opportunities for me back here in Nepal.

For those of us who have had to struggle our way up, when one of us makes it so do others in our network. My younger brother and sister had it much easier because I was around to take care of them, their education. I am now building a house for my parents. We have come a long way. Being able to give back to my family and to Nepal is a privilege that makes me proud.

Read also: Crossborder virus and Nepali migrant workers, Upasana Khadka

At the end of the day, those of us who go for foreign employment eventually come back. In China, things were systematic but all I did was hustle to earn as much as I could. Even though there were Nepalis in Ghanzhou, I did not open up about my personal struggle or rely on them for support even when there were times when I was in tears even as I cooked.

I guess the 18-hour workdays limited any real socialising. But here in Nepal you can feel the strength of the support system from your loved ones who are close by at all times. And that matters a lot, as does the familiarity. Having missed that abroad, makes me value it even more.  

The struggle continues, but its nature has changed. I feel proud to grapple with the challenges of co-owning a restaurant where I also work as Chef. It is not easy, of course. There are opportunities in Nepal, but you need a lot of patience to work the system. Sometimes, when people return from abroad with some capital, they want instant results. Sadly, it does not work that way in Nepal.  

If there is one thing that I have learnt, it is that sooner or later, hard work eventually pays off.

Translated from a conversation with the author. 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. 

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