I first came to Nepal for Mount Everest. The mountains lured me, but after learning about the state of Nepal’s education system, I signed up to be a volunteer.
The government teacher at the school I found myself in told me with complete sincerity, “I want to be a security guard. In Qatar.”
“Where?” I asked.
The teacher-turned-security guard joke used to be common among the teachers I worked alongside in the South Bronx. With metal detectors sounding alarms and irate parents barging into classrooms, instructors often pointed out similarities between their educational facility and a jail block.
But this Nepali school was nothing like an inner city detention center. Sure, books were old and walls needed painting, but students were compliant, well-behaved and attentive.
“Can you tell me more about that?” I cringed hearing myself sound like a textbook. Now, the man’s story haunts me.
One of his former professors ended up digging graves because it was the only job he could find abroad. The image of his mentor shoveling cemeteries compelled him to make a vow to stay in country and serve his people. Evidently, he’s since changed his mind.
“Practice is more important than promise,” a bitter tone colors his words. As a mid-career government teacher, he earns about $200USD monthly. He’s been posted in a community school over a day’s journey from his family, and on holidays, he travels home to see his wife.
This is a man who has paid his dues; he’s gone through the rigor of higher education and beat out hundreds of candidates to land a coveted public teaching position. But he can’t help but consider salaries from overseas.
Here in Nepal, his story isn’t unique.
Foreign destinations tempt many Nepali citizens. In fact, if Nepal was reduced to 100 people, 44 of them would be in another country. Businesses capitalize on this trend, offering visa processing and guaranteed admissions to study abroad programs.
Shuffle through Kathmandu’s airport, and you’ll see for yourself. Sweaty hands clutch manilla folders with names printed neatly beneath a destination — Dubai, Malaysia, South Korea. These packets are often arranged by middlemen, brokers who collect exorbitant fees from those dreaming of higher wages and making families proud.
I’ve heard of fees as high as $40,000USD for entry into the United States. Unfortunately, what is advertised doesn’t always match reality. Instead of a direct flight and a valid visa, paying clients find themselves drudging through the jungles of Mexico, only to be arrested at the American border. Those who do manage to find themselves past immigration control often discover less than ideal living conditions.
Over shots of whiskey, two friends describe the container boxes they were shown as their South Korean living accommodations.
“Hold on,” I interrupted, “You mean what we use for storage, before moving? That’s what you lived in?”
The pitch of my voice amplified my shock. Indeed, what we store excess furniture in housed several men laboring long days in a factory.
It’s incorrect to assume those who leave Nepal are uneducated. Scholars graduating at the top of their class don’t always find suitable opportunity at home.
Yet moving abroad doesn’t guarantee quality work, either.
A professor at one of Nepal’s top academic institutions admitted, “I could go abroad, but why? I have a nice life here doing work I love.” His hands tightened upon the wheel of his car as we sped through Kathmandu’s streets. Cars are a luxury in Nepal, and he seemed to savor it. “I perform mind work, not labor work.”
During my last visit to the United States, I met a Nepali restaurant owner who served up some of the tastiest dal bhat I found. His business was steady, though not booming, and he proudly gushed over photos of his daughter’s recent marriage to a bideshi (foreigner or, as I’ve come to identify, “white person”).
When I returned to Nepal, he introduced me over Facebook to a former schoolmate who now holds a high government post. Curious, I visited his office and was surprised by what I heard.
Sitting in the first air-conditioned room I had been in during my time in Nepal, I was peppered with questions about his old friend living in America. He listened with an amused smirk when I detailed the charming restaurant tucked in a tightly-knit community.
“Had he stayed in Nepal,” the man said gravely, “He’d most likely be serving a high post in the Supreme Court.”
My eyes widened.
“We need more men like him in our country.”
I’ve spoken to NYC taxi drivers who miss their home, their food, their festivals. I’ve witnessed monks trade burgundy robes for chef uniforms. Many of my students have learned to live without fathers; he’s serving an army post, he’s abroad, working, I’m not sure where. They’ve grown up with the idea that success means a passport, a ticket to someplace else, and the money to build a house in Nepal.
And I’ve watched when their fathers return. It reminds me of the high school graduate who moved away and comes back for the anniversary party years later, sliding his BMW into a lot of rusted pick-up trucks and Buicks. Except now they’re neither here nor there. They’ve been gone too long; they’ve missed home, but now they don’t. And now they’re not quite sure where they fit in. Or where home is.
I keep seeing articles on “How to Build Nepal,” but I’ve yet to see writing that aims to encourage the talent here. We have to prize the brains that originate in Nepal — and acknowledge what has left because of lack of incentive and opportunity.
If NGOs and INGOs are really interested in building a sustainable, more efficient country, steps must be taken to allow local people to strut their stuff, to get them the resources and the encouragement they need in order to build better systems while supporting their families and feeling good about the work they are doing.
Sure, fly in specialists from overseas, but let them operate in tandem with Nepalis who have cultural perspective and on-the-ground knowledge. Let local leaders advise of the corruption that plagues institutions and how to best go about it. Let communities assemble teams, delegate responsibilities and list items of necessary order.
One of my students is a smart, capable twenty-eight year old. He’s fit and highly-motivated. And he’s preparing for a job interview as a security guard in another country.
I’d look for people like him for my team. True go-getters who can get tasks done.
Let’s build Nepal, but let’s use the “mind work” of the people here to do it.
Before traveling to Nepal, Michelle worked alongside top entrepreneurs and thought leaders in America, consulting Fortune 500 brands and organizing well-reviewed events and conferences. Michelle is the founder of Project Exponential, a monthly dinner series in New York City that strategically invites guests for professional and personal discourse. Her blog has attracted over 33,000 views, and her writing has been featured on many online sites.
Michelle graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Colorado at Boulder and holds a M.S.W. from Columbia University.
To learn more visit www.michellewelsch.com.