Return of the nativeFor a Nepali, Dubai started feeling like home after 30 years
This 36th instalment of Diaspora Diaries.
When I first went to the UAE in 1992, it was for two years. I ended up staying away for over three decades working for the Dubai Port Authority (DPA).
After crossing 55, the retirement age for foreigners, I left in 2022. By then, I had spent more time in the UAE than in Nepal. Somewhere along the way, Dubai started feeling more like home.
I used to be sad leaving Nepal after a vacation, but later started feeling like I was returning home when I boarded a Dubai-bound flight. I cannot pinpoint when that switch happened.
I suppose whether in Nepal or the UAE I had to work and earn, and job prospects were better there. Vast improvements in mobile connectivity during the past three decades also helped to ease the burden of being away.
As my salary increased and I gained more responsibility in my job, so did my aspirations and what I wanted for my family. When you start earning, even the nature of your dreams evolve. Whether they come true or not is a different matter, but even to dare to dream, you need to have something in your pocket.
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I applied to go overseas in 1992 knowing nothing about Dubai. My attempt to find a book on Dubai in Asan failed. I had heard about “Arab”, not Dubai.
I had to pay an agent Rs40,000 for the job, and did not have the money. So my mother sold her gold ornament. I would later find out that the employer had paid all my recruitment costs, and the agency had cheated me.
I landed in Dubai at 1AM and my group was the manpower company's first international contract, and the manager also accompanied us. In 1992, the only tall building was the Dubai World Trade Center and seeing the city lights I was excited. But soon we were driving through the dark desert.
The mailman used to come to camp with letters from home, and I remember rushing to him like children running after sweets. When I sent a letter to my family saying I am unwell, I would have recovered by the time it reached them. If my father did not receive my letter, he used to get angry and anxious. My father and I got closer through our letters and I became a better writer. I used to also dabble in songwriting.
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When we wanted to hear our family's voices, we headed to the phone booth with a plastic bag full of coins because it cost 9 dirhams per minute. We ran out of coins before we ran out of words to say, and left the booth with an empty feeling for the next impatient caller waiting in line.
Getting to read something in Nepali meant so much then. There were no newspapers, but we used to even read the ads in the newspapers used to wrap things from home. Later, I subscribed to Kantipur and Saptahik. I had collected scores of books and magazines over the years.
Sending money home was a problem as there were no money exchanges. Sometimes I sneaked some cash inside my letters, or relied on fellow Nepalis who were going home. Once, I saw a Nepali man wearing a dhaka topi on the street, and asked him to take some money to my family when he told me he was headed home. He did, although now in retrospect, I cannot believe that I was so trusting. There were so few Nepalis in the UAE in those days that any Nepali you met instantly became family. When we heard that new Nepali workers had arrived, we even reserved a car to go see them. We wondered if they were from our village, and were excited to hear all the gossip from home.
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Right in front of my eyes, the UAE was transformed and I changed too. My journey as a general helper began at a basic salary of 700 dirhams a month. By the time I left as Senior Clerk, I was making 5,500 dirhams ($1,360) basic salary along with an additional allowance of 3,200 dirhams.
I know I am lucky compared to fellow Nepalis, which is why I stayed for 30 years in the same company. Many Nepalis still face problems, and I have helped many of them. There was no Nepali embassy until mid-2000, and we had to do what we could.
When the UAE started prioritising jobs to locals, I was lucky not to be laid off. Many foreign workers had to leave. But I was incredibly unlucky with other things. I could not come to Nepal to spend the last days with my father. When he died, I could not hold him and cry. My brother also died while I was away. Nor was I here to hold my wife’s hand when my daughter was born.
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But my job gave me insight into activities that enabled the rapid transformation of the country. The port I oversaw handled general goods and these also included soil, stones and greenery from different parts of the world like Pakistan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iran that would be used to build the cities and turn the desert green.
Even livestock were brought from Europe and New Zealand. Some of the cows would give birth en route. The 100 cows that were loaded into ships became 105 by the time they disembarked in Dubai, messing up the paperwork which had to be redone.
I got to see and touch new models of cars even before they were released in the market. Lambos, Ferraris and Teslas, you name it. Someone from my background could never dream of owning them, and my dreams for myself and my family were more modest. I was not admiring the latest automotive technology so much, but wondered how they would fare in Nepal's rough roads. These slick new cars with low ground clearance would never make it to my village.
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My job required me to train in the latest logistics management technologies. A recent visit to the land revenue office in Nepal with stacks and stacks of files made me wonder when we will reach that level. If the government wanted, I would even work for free for a few months to help upgrade our management systems. The world has really left us way behind. We citizens are also to blame. Nepalis tend to obey laws and rules depending where we are, and tend to be more relaxed about following them in Nepal than elsewhere.
The UAE has a lot of oil wealth, and has also opened its doors for people from all over the world, offering them opportunities to invest and prosper. You can register a company in minutes using a smartphone. Even Nepalis in the UAE are now running their own businesses.
I chose not to go that route since I wanted to come home. During my last days in Dubai, I remember getting emotional looking at the fully-grown neem tree I had planted in 2005 and nurtured with manure from imported livestock arriving at the port.
Now in Nepal after 30 years, I am trying to find my footing. I know I cannot work for someone else. I am unsure what I will do next, and am aware of my age. I do not have the same energy of the young man who left for Dubai a lifetime ago.
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Translated from a conversation in Nepali with Lek Yonzon Tamang.
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] with Diaspora Diaries in the subject line.