Nepalese women celebrate the Tij Festival at Namaste Resturant near Dongdaemun (East Gate) in Seoul. The “festival of sisterhood” is traditionally celebrated to ensure that one’s husband lives a long and wealthy life.
By Madhabi Bhatta
The Nepalese diaspora in South Korea has been blossoming in recent years. Currently, the peninsula is home to nearly 10,000 Nepalese, comprised of people of different status and sectors.
The people of the Himalayan nation are nursing the sick in Seoul, working as farmers on the outskirts of big cities, researching for innovation in biotechnology and manufacturing goods in factories.
Though their numerical size looks quite small compared with other communities, such as Filipinos, Vietnamese and Bangladeshi, the Nepalese have been able to occupy an important space in Korean society due to its diverse culture and unique traits.
During the course of their experience as aliens in a foreign land, the Nepalese in Korea have experienced joy and despair. As a result, the small community is becoming vibrant and vociferous in many respects.
There are many economic, political and cultural forces propelling the Nepalese out of their homeland, and those who landed in Korea came with the dream of upgrading the living standards of their family.
They come as workers, students, researchers, permanent immigrants, investors, religious pilgrims and through marriage.
It is largely a youthful population with the potential to contribute to the Korean labor market. They also have the opportunity to assist in the development of Nepal by sending money back home and through social activities and networking.
Hallyu, or the Korean wave, has spread to Nepal. One can see Korean hair styles on Nepalese women, and Korean dramas and other products are sold in places like Kathmandu.
The Nepalese community in Korea is predominantly populated by workers, followed by students and businesspeople. Geographically, they hailed from all over Nepal and are dispersed throughout the South Korea.
Nepalese have been coming in significant numbers since the late 1980s, when the first wave of migration began.
They came to work in "3D" jobs - which stands for dirty, dangerous, difficult - and were generally shunned by Koreans. Since Korea didn't have an official system to hire foreign workers until 1994, Nepalese entered Korea as tourists or artists.
Nepal restored its democracy in 1990 and changed its labor law to allow Nepalese youths to go abroad in search of work.
In 1994, South Korea introduced its Industrial Trainee System to fulfill labor shortages in blue collar industries.
Since then, Nepalese have been able to come to Korea through an official channel. Unfortunately, the Nepalese democracy didn't move toward consolidation and the country suffered from the Nepali Civil War from 1996-2006. As a result, Nepalese abroad have remained reluctant to return to their home country.
Although the Nepalese community in Korea is worker dominated, there are significant numbers of people in academic, business and religious domains.
Around 4,000 students are registered in Masters and PhD programs, mainly in the field of biotechnology, in addition to a handful of postdoctoral researchers and professors
Recently, Nepalese have been opening businesses in Korea, most of which are restaurants. Others are attempting to run travel agencies, retail shops and export-import businesses.
Additionally, Nepalese are coming to Korea through marriage. It is estimated that nearly 300 Nepalese-Korean families are living in Korea.
Festivals, Culture, Networking
One major aspect of the Nepalese communities in Korea is that they have managed to keep their culture and traditions alive.
Most eat traditional food if possible, and celebrate their national-ethnic festivals each year.
The Nepalese festivals Dashain and Tihar have just concluded. Dashain falls near the Korean holiday Chuseok, and Tihar falls 15 days after.
While Dashain is quite similar to Chuseok, Tihar is quite a unique affair.
Nepalese women celebrated their festival, Teej, two months back. Similarly, the culture of meditation and yoga is popular among Nepalese. These festivals are the times when expatriate Nepalese feel nostalgic for their homeland. They frequently organize cultural programs and invite popular Nepalese artists.
Nepalese are also organizing to strengthen the community. The Nepal Consulting Committee (NCC) was formed in 1991, and is well-known for its support of migrant workers when they get into accidents or encounter other problems. Besides the NCC, there are more than 60 active organizations in the Nepalese community based on religion, geography and occupation.
Although many Nepalese landed in Korea following the dream of lucrative salaries and better living standards, some have seen their dreams shattered by unbearable sufferings.
Hundreds of workers have been handicapped in the industrial accidents. It is difficult to organize funerals or send the body back to Nepal.
Also, many workers have returned to Nepal because of ill-health, as they were unable to undergo treatment in Korea.
Nepalese, especially workers, are being used and abused by a variety of Korean groups. In many cases, innocent Nepalese are being cheated.
Although Nepalese are dispersed throughout Korea, there are certain places where Nepalese have congregated. If you go to Dongdaemun Subway Station, it is not difficult to find such an area.
A dozen Nepalese restaurants and Nepalese souvenir shops are scattered around the area. Yeongdeungpo Station and its vicinity is another place where significant numbers of Nepalese reside.
Recently, in the Ewha Womans University area, a Nepalese hub is growing steadily with a number of restaurants. Likewise, Ansan, Uijeongbu, Gimhae and Gwangju are also areas where Nepalese culture can be found.
The Nepalese diaspora will always be connected to its country of origin and play a role in developing it. On the other hand, their sweat has contributed to fostering the Korean economy.
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