A migrant worker walking out of the arrivals terminal at the Tribhuvan International Airport is instantly recognizable. He has many large suitcases tightly tied with strings as if each suitcase were a salmon fish in a net. The sight of the strings around the suitcase gave rise to the widely-used moniker dori lahure (dori: a piece of string; lahure: anyone who goes abroad for work). These days, strings are being slowly replaced by cling-plastic wrap, as the latter is easier to use and fits the purpose better.
The function of the string or plastic wrap is to keep the suitcases secure, not just from the ruthless baggage handlers, who load and unload the suitcases as if they contained things of little value, but also from greedy officials at the airport. These officials are notorious not just for pinching valuable items, but also for making the baggage itself disappear. A lock is no guarantee that the items inside will remain inside; a simple poke of a pen in between the teeth and the zipper gives way. A piece of string or a roll of plastic wrap is the migrant worker’s fool-proof way of telling whether a suitcase has been tampered with. (Last week, as the rain poured down, the plastic wrap was useful in protecting the suitcases from getting drenched, as well.)
The only thing a migrant worker can do to make sure that the contents of his luggage get home with him is to tape a sheet of paper with his name, flight route, passport number, and sometimes phone number, for identification on the suitcases. The items in the baggage, irrespective of their monetary value, have a huge emotional significance to the migrant worker. Not only do they contain items for personal use, reminiscent of their time abroad, but they also bear gifts for family, friends, and relatives who expect tokens of kindness of one form or another.
When twenty-six-year-old Roshish Bhandari Chhetri came home from Malaysia in late February for the first time in three years, he brought presents for 18 people. None of them asked for them, and he had briefly wondered before shopping for presents if the gifts were worth the money spent. A migrant worker in Malaysia makes, on average, 900 Ringgits before taxes (the minimum wage in peninsular Malaysia), and the monetary costs of gifts can sometimes become a nuisance. As a salesman at a textile company in Kuala Terengganu, Chhetri makes 696 Ringgits a month, after income tax deductions (154 Ringgits) and a hostel charge (50 Ringgits). His mom had told him to just come home and not to bother with stuffing his luggage with gifts. But a friend in Malaysia changed Chhetri’s mind. He could not come home empty handed, she told him, because everyone expects something from a man visiting from abroad. He should take home whatever he can, even if it is only a packet of candies.
The famous bazaar in Malaysia where almost every Nepali goes to shop is Kota Raya. Most buy television sets and blankets—the two items on an airport trolley that immediately distinguish a migrant worker from other passengers. Not only are these items cheaper abroad; they are considered to be of “original” quality compared to the ones sold in Nepal. Realizing the popularity of these items, especially of television sets, the Nepalese government has made special arrangements that allow migrant workers to bring in television sets without paying customs duties. A migrant worker, and only a migrant worker, who has worked abroad for at least a year, can bring home one television set up to 32 inches wide for free. A TV larger than that, and every inch will be taxed, depending on the size of the screen.
Kota Raya is a Nepalese bazaar, says Chhetri, but he did not shop there; neither did he buy the two popular items. Unlike most of the migrant workers, who migrate from rural areas of the country with little or no education, Chhetri comes from a well-off family in Kathmandu and has cleared the 12th grade. His family has no need for a new television set. Besides, he says that he wanted to separate himself from the herd. What he bought were clothing items, even though the others do in fact buy similar items, and even though he believes that when it comes to fashion, Malaysia is still far behind Nepal.
The only son of a single mom, he brought her three spangled saris; his aunt, his mom’s sister, also got one. His uncles, mom’s two brothers, received a branded shirt each; so did two of his usins and a friend. (He got a Samsung mobile phone for his youngest uncle, as well.) For a cousin’s young wife, Chhetri brought a long sleeveless dress. Another cousin’s wife received a sleeved top. For his two aunts (wives of his uncles), he brought more traditional attire—(unsewn) sets of kurta salwar each. A five-year-old cousin received a skirt with braces. For a neighbor, a shopkeeper who sells glass panes and who had lent him money when he went to Malaysia, Chhetri brought pieces of cloth for a shirt and a pair of pants. For the parents of his best friend, who is currently in Australia, he brought a shirt (for the father) and a set of kurta salwar (for the mother). Other neighbors and relatives who cross paths with him will each get to taste Malaysian chocolates. Chhetri did not pay customs duties on any of these items.
Bhopal Baral, chief customs administrator at the only international airport, says that the TV is the object that gets taxed the most. Every day, one in 20 migrant workers brings in a TV that is larger than 32 inches. There are others who stay abroad for less than a year and purchase a TV set, which gets taxed on entry. This means that, every day, around $300–400 USD is paid in customs duties for TV sets alone.
The second most taxed item is gold, says Baral, but migrant workers are rarely the ones carrying it in their luggage. Since every few months most of them wire money home, they have little left to buy gold with when they visit. The migrant workers who import gold weighing more than 50 grams, the maximum weight allowed in for free, are often migrant workers working in high-level positions abroad, says Baral.
What Chhetri wants from his family, friends, and relatives is for them to recognize the change in his image. Chhetri had a troubled history of being a drug addict—one of the reasons he could not enroll in college. After his then-girlfriend went to Australia for further studies and left him, he started taking Brown Sugar to numb his mind, which quickly turned into an addiction. It did not take long for him to be known as a taape, someone who uses medicinal tablets for pleasure, a colloquial term for a junkie. Parents started asking his mom to keep him away from their children, even those who were his close friends in his drug experiments.
Frustrated, his mom admitted him into a rehab clinic, where Chhetri spent nine months, being admitted three separate times during that period. But that desire to rid himself of the addiction only provided strong proof that he was a worthless junkie, says Chhetri. His image suffered further when his contemporaries left for Australia while he toiled away in the capital city, repairing printers for around $20 USD a month, plus commission. When he decided he had had enough of that job and his society and wanted to go to Malaysia, people thought that being a migrant worker was beneath him and told his mom so.
Now that he has come home after three years with gifts for everyone, Chhetri says people treat him differently. For them, and in his own appraisal, he has morphed into a responsible adult who has begun to earn and who can now be trusted with money and other “mature” affairs. People who had previously regarded him with contempt are now willing to give him a chance. He now hopes that he can bank on this goodwill and migrate to Canada instead. His aunt’s daughter and son-in-law are currently there and he has heard that they have opened a bakery, for which they need assistants.
It is this transformation from someone who does not earn enough to someone who does that makes the recipients of gifts expect them beforehand. Just as it is natural for a person to buy gifts, it is so for those receiving them. In the case of the migrant workers, the expectation is higher because most of them go to a country richer than Nepal, and as the residents of a poor nation, whether the migrant laborer is suffering from low or inconsistent pay abroad, they still expect something from foreign soil. The only difference is that sometimes the voices of expectation are loud and clear, with some calling the migrant worker for a particular kind of present, and sometimes not.
But, whether voiced or not, these expectations are heard and often become a burden for the migrant worker who simply wants to return home. Around 2,000 migrant workers pass through the airport every day to leave for destinations such as Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, but most never receive the job or the pay they were promised. In the last fiscal year 2013–2014, an approximate $5.54 billion USD was sent home in remittances. However, some migrant workers do not get paid at all and are forced to return home empty-handed. And some lose all they had earned to an accident and come home paralyzed or disabled. Still, those left behind perceive the ones who left as a lucky few and anticipate a party when they visit.
The Prabasi Nepali Coordination Committee (PNCC), a non-profit organization in Kathmandu, shelters some of the migrant workers who are unable to return home on their own. Coming home empty handed can be a source of shame. Some, says Jeevan Poudel of PNCC, ask their family members to send money, and then they buy a suitcase and a few items of clothing for their children in Kathmandu so that their community will, at the least, not pity them. When they have hopes and dreams of a better life, and circumstances shatter them, it is agonizing to return home as they left or in worse condition, says Poudel.
For most, the dream is simple: to drudge for a few years, repay the loan they paid to get the job, and build a house; to drudge for a few more years and get married and raise a family. Unfortunately, this lack of ambition has been attacked by the press and by analysts. In 2011, when the National Living Standard Survey was conducted with support from the World Bank, the results showed that 78.9% of remittances were being spent on consumer goods and only 2.9% were set aside as capital. Some raised the concern that this was re-channeling the money out of the country, as Nepal imports most of its consumer items. Buying gifts, although customary, is another manifestation of this widespread consumerism, the survey findings suggest.
But a household can only be a consumer when the migrant worker, who on average sends home around $800 USD a year, is the sole breadwinner of that family. It is in the places where he spends money that capital gets accumulated. If a migrant worker spends his money on books and stationery for his children, is he investing in his children’s education and thereby his own future, or is he just spending on consumer items? If a migrant worker buys medicine, is he not investing in his health so that he can keep working hard and send money home? And if a migrant worker buys gifts for people he cares about, brings home blankets and TVs and mobile phones and other electronic appliances, is he not investing in social relationships that have lasting impacts?
Whether a migrant worker makes more than he would have ever made in Nepal or whether he gets cheated by his agents at home and exploited by his employers abroad, he is a lahure, respected by those staying behind. Some find the term dori lahure derogatory and some do use it in that sense, but most villages light up in the wake of a lahure’s arrival. He is the bearer of stories of far-off lands. He is the one who left the impoverished countryside and came home with wealth that this land could not generate. And he is the reason to escape from everyday drudgery and to be a little merry. As soon as he arrives home, parties erupt and villagers sing and dance late into the night. And in their songs, they never forget to make a reference to the gifts he brings home:
lahure daile ke lyayo boki
haatma rumal kamalko phul ho ki
What did the lahure brother bring home?
Is it a handkerchief or a lotus flower?
Photographs: Bhaswor Ojha