call to duty

a sabbatical rest, day 83

Cover photo: Nepali young people line up at the passport office, looking for a way out.

A few weeks back I mustered up all my meager Nepali skills and ordered breakfast, only to be met with a blank stare. I’ll never know if it was my Nepali or not: the waitress was Filipino and didn’t know the language. She spoke perfect English, however, so I did get my eggs.

She is married to a Nepalese man, and they were stranded by the pandemic, having come back to Kathmandu to see their son who lives with her in-laws while they (usually) work in Dubai, UAE. She loves the Nepalese because they are so “content,” she said. And then she paused and said it wasn’t always good because they sometimes lack ambition. This struck me as a thoughtful observation, although I’ve met many ambitious Nepali young adults.

I wondered at the time, and still wonder, how that lack of ambition she noted is related to philosophical traditions and values rooted in dharma. Dharma is a Sanskrit word that means law or decree, and more generally duty. While karma is the sum of all of a person’s actions through all of his lives, past and present, these actions relate to that person’s dharma, that is whether that person fulfilled the duties dictated by his situation. It seems this could stifle ambition and innovation. Why bother to change your situation?

My ambitious young Nepalese friends, however, are looking for a path toward wealth and comfort not typically afforded by such thinking. They see their less ambitious peers, who join the army for USD $150 a month and a pension, not as content but as dulled and subjugated, unwilling and perhaps even unwilling to think for themselves. I’ll reserve judgment on that, but the paths open to those who seek wealth and power in the culture are narrow and their chances are slim.

Politics is one path. The student unions at the colleges are powerful. The union that wins the elections controls the vendors who can be on campus, for example. But these student organizations are proxies for political parties and help organize political rallies and demonstrations. Being involved opens doors to elected office or business opportunities. And government jobs are among the view that comes with pensions. (There is no Social Security, as we understand it in the United States.) These student organizations are so important to the political culture that organizing (and indoctrination) begins in high school. Politics is one path, but it is a small one. In the end, not everyone can be in charge.

So, another path is emigration. Our morning walk takes us by the passport office, where long lines snake around like those for a popular ride at Disney World. Vendors on the street sell colorful plastic sleeves for you to organize your paperwork, along with pens, snacks, and passport covers. The difference is that at Disney World you are actually going to get on the ride. Not as likely here.

If you have a good education (think private school) you might have a shot at further schooling in Australia, New Zealand, India, Japan, or Korea. Europe if you are very lucky. The United States if you are well-connected. Dream merchants abound; there are businesses purporting to help you get the VISA or education you want, many of them borderline scams. And there are other businesses that will teach you the language of the country you want to go to, so you can fill out the application and pass the interview. There are colleges and universities here, of course. But increasingly, as students graduate, they leave the country for better financial incentives. A survey of veterinary students, for example, found that over half of them plan to leave the country.

At the lower end of the educational spectrum, poorer Nepali youth are drawn to the promise of better-paying jobs in the service sectors of oil-rich countries that depend on (and take advantage of) Nepali immigrants. The work is dirty, dangerous, and difficult. But even before the pandemic the unemployment rate was over 11%, so to an ambitious, or perhaps desperate, young person, migrant work seems appealing. Most of these are young males, who cannot calculate the psychological and physical costs of these choices to themselves and to their wives and children.

This issue is complicated by remittances. 3 million or so Nepalese work abroad, not counting the estimated 3 million who cross the more porous border with India looking for work or education. The Nepali Diaspora sends something like 8 billion USD home each year, a vital lifeline for many families on the margins, and essential support for the economy.

This all strikes me as unsustainable. If the most ambitious youths leave, who will solve the problems the country confronts? Demographics will shift, as the population becomes more elderly with greater needs. As a former vice-chairman of the National Planning Committee put it, the country is likely to get old before it gets rich. Money is not the most important issue, however. The people who are leaving are the ones who could provide much-needed innovation and energy. And hope.

Perhaps it is their duty to stay, not because of dharma, but for a common good. And often for their own.

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