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Return to sender

One does become close to home—in a roundabout way—the further they go from it.

Whenever I missed home in the years that I have been away, I listened to John Denver’s evergreen anthem of longing and nostalgia; the trick was to replace ‘West Virginia’ with ‘Kathmandu’. As archaic as it may sound, the heart does grow fonder with distance. I was never able to wrap my head around it as a bright-eyed young boy leaving home for the first time, but one does become close to home—in a roundabout way—the further away they go from it. “Don’t become a bideshi,” they had said as I left, how could I have known that I would instead end up redefining by own “Nepaliness”? And now that the country roads are finally meandering back home, I find myself again confronted by another barrage of questions, mostly amounting to variations of, “Why are you coming back?”

Well, why not?

I should, however, qualify that I am fortunate to count myself as one of the few who have the luxury of weighing the merits of building a career abroad or doing so back home. There are so many who don’t. In a world full of so many pushes and pulls, it is often a decision guided by economic needs. Which is why, the debate around living abroad or returning to Nepal is a complex one—beyond any moralising.

As part of the mass exodus of youth, either as students or migrant labour, in the past decade, I feel my experiences abroad tug at a larger experience that so many others went through. We were born in Nepal, but “grew up” abroad, often learning life-lessons the hard way. I had it relatively easy (compared to some horror stories you come to hear), but one of the most enduring lessons I learned was through what would have been considered “menial” jobs back home. The lessons of humility and the pride in the fruits of your own labour that we learned working at outlets like McDonalds or shopping chains like Sainsbury, were so far removed from our middle-class upbringings that they will remain with us for a long time to come, and rightly so.

If this early strife as young students is a common thread in the initial years of so many Nepali students abroad, equal number of them go through a common conundrum as they gear up to complete their studies. There are thousands of Nepalis leaving the country each year and it is a blessing to join the few who are returning. But the most intriguing part of the returning experience is well-wishing Nepalis asking the returnees for the reason for coming back. The first question an uncle based in Nepal raised upon learning of my intentions to return was, “Why?” The reason can differ with every individual but the simplest of reasons is that the returnees have done what they sought to do abroad (in my case, obtain an education). The question could also be reverted to, “Why not?” Why not return to Nepal? Why not return to one’s family, friends and the country we have come to love? What is so excruciatingly confounding and unbelievable about doing that? That should probably have been the most natural of things to do in the best of worlds.

But as we know, this is not an ideal world, especially not in a conflict-ridden country like ours which is perpetually going through a process of its own reinvention. “What will you do in Nepal? There is no electricity, water does not flow in taps, the political instability is rampant and you can’t do business there,” the naysayers say. But perhaps, these are precisely the reasons to go back. Not because one can wave a magical wand and make the problems disappear at once but, at least, to try and make the situation better little by little.

At the end of the day, it is an individual’s own decision regarding where they choose to reside. It is also true that some people’s skill-sets are better suited in a western context than developing one like ours. In a similar vein then, if somebody wants to go back to Nepal and chance their hand, there is no reason for them to have to validate the decision. As nobody questions the life decisions Nepali students and other economic migrants make abroad, in an ideal world, anybody going back should not have to face the burden of proving that their decision was right.

It has always been said that natural science graduates need to return to the infrastructure-deficient Nepal. Engineers need to build roads, hydro-power projects and bridges. We need a better doctor-patient ratio and more geologists and scientists. However, as a person who pursued social sciences, it is easy to see why Nepal is the place to be for social science graduates. The old definitions of Nepaliness are gradually being replaced by a diversity of definitions. It is no longer just the daura surwal that define our identity, but added to it are dhoti and bakkhu and many others. The country is going through a renaissance in terms of its identity and system of governance. The future provinces will come with their own challenges and opportunities. Cultural and sexual minorities are rising to demand their rights. We have been given a great opportunity to be a part of this tectonic shift. This is not to say that a few people returning will solve the mammoth issues; that would be too far-fetched. But we can at least play our little part in re-imagining this country of ours.

And to that end, I am ready to put my shoulders to the wheel.

By Shreya Paudel