The greener grass on the other side

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Pushpa is an anomaly, but also a part of an increasing phenomenon, in which urban youths have one eye fixed on the Gulf countries and the other further west, on Europe and North America.

After a month-long vacation, Pushpa Bajracharya flew back to Dubai on Thursday, to resume his work as a merchandiser at a distribution company called Transmed Overseas, a job he has held for the last two-and-half years. When around two thousand people leave to work in the Gulf countries and Malaysia every day, his flight might seem like a normal occurrence–just another young person (he is 27 years old) passing through the departure gates in hopes of a better life.

What is different with him is that unlike most migrant labourers who hail from the countryside, Pushpa is a native of Kathmandu, born and brought up in the neighbourhood of Sigal, and he has a bachelor’s degree in Management. His family has a background most migrants to the city dream of–a house and a shop in a prime location. And until he decided to leave for Dubai, he was a high school teacher, teaching Maths and Computer Science, and gave private tuition classes. In total, he was making Rs 25,000 a month–a starting salary for most migrant labourers abroad. The value of money, of course, is relative. So is the feeling of stasis.

After six-and-a-half years of working as a teacher from six in the morning until five in the evening, Pushpa felt that the returns were diminishing and his life was moving nowhere. But migrating to Dubai for work was not his first choice. Like other urban-born and educated people, he had looked further west to the US for emigration. He had applied for master’s programmes in the US through an educational consultancy, but lost Rs 200,000 in the process. Frustrated, he started looking for opportunities elsewhere and found one in Dubai. In the literature on migrant workers, Pushpa is an anomaly, but also a part of an increasing phenomenon, in which urban youths have one eye fixed on the Gulf countries and the other further west, on Europe and North America, the preferred choices–either way, the goal is to leave, for which they can hardly be blamed.

“What’s here? Nothing? First, with the jobs that we hold, we can never amass enough capital to start our own business. And if we have already started a business, you know the situation in the country. The business soon stagnates,” says Pushpa, leaving me to guess what he’s trying to get across. But I have a general idea about what he means by “the situation in the country”.

Our culture has become such that toiling on foreign soil is preferred over doing the same here. A person’s stories of travel, whether by choice or not, are seen as marks of prestige, of wealth and power–harkening to the days when lahures started enlisting in the British/Indian armies. When people talk about people who are abroad, there is nothing but admiration in their voice, the kind of admiration that brings feelings of inferiority in the ones listening, the kind that gently presses the listeners to plan their own exit.

“Yeha basera kaam chhaina,” is a refrain one hears over and over again, and once one hears it enough times from enough number of people, it starts to feel true. Photos of friends, cousins, neighbours’ children or acquaintances in front of the Petronas Twin Towers then become objects of envy. Migration scholars and researchers are yet to study the trend of urban youths migrating to the Gulf countries and Malaysia for work. But they and people like Pushpa do not want to say outright that peer pressure or the culture of migration is one of the factors driving youths abroad. That narrative gives a negative spin to a phenomenon that is as old as human history. Instead, they call it the ‘demonstration effect’. People like Pushpa (when I met him a month ago in a small room in Dhalkho, there were four other men with experiences similar to his) point at the dwindling opportunities, perceived or real, here in the country.

They have all seen what people can achieve here with the money they make abroad. As a friend once said, “As long as there is someone abroad sending back money, life here is prettier. You don’t have to, for example, worry about falling ill and not having money for treatment.” Pushpa makes over Rs 130,000 a month in Dubai. He does not want to disclose exactly how much of this money he saves, but he says he does put away some–because the reasons he could not save here in Nepal do not exist there in Dubai.

“You have friends here, whom you meet every single day and have beer with. There, as long as you remain a teetotaller, you save.” His younger brother, Sunil, who had spent a year in Qatar, agrees with him on this. As Pushpa flips through the pictures saved on his mobile phone, he shows me photos of himself in front of a rack of personal care products he stacked in a supermarket. He says life in Dubai is much better than the one he lived here. When one hears harrowing stories of migrant labourers exploited at the hands of agents and employers alike, statements like his sound exaggerated. But Amina Maharjan, a Livelihood Specialist (Migration) at ICIMOD, says that educated migrants like Pushpa have better career prospects abroad.

“Their education and knowledge of English helps,” says Maharjan. “As does the motivation to do anything to stay afloat,” says Sunil. He is planning to soon migrate to Denmark and join his wife, who is studying hotel management there. “I wouldn’t do my own dishes here in Nepal, but there if I have to, I will become a DJ. Not a disc jockey, but the kind who washes dishes in restaurants,” he laughs, revealing unintentionally how strong the dream of leaving is.

(Originally published in The Kathmandu Post, Nepal.)

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