Migratory tales of Nepali grannies

Shranup Tandukar

When 61-year-old Mandira Bajracharya went to the United States for the first time in 2019, she spent around five months in the country but wasn’t able to do what she had travelled to the country for.

She had arrived in the US a few weeks before her daughter Sagun Bajracharya was to give birth. Mandira was hoping to spend her time in the US taking care of her grandson. But due to complications during the birth, Mandira’s newborn grandson Prayan had to stay under strict observation for one month and then under general care for another three months. Though Mandira was able to spend time with her grandson in the hospital, it wasn’t what she envisioned.

“The hospital and the staff were incredibly nice and supportive, but I didn’t get to play or spend time with my grandson as much as I wanted to or as freely as I wanted to,” says Mandira.

That’s why when Mandira was asked to come back to the US in December 2021, she was ecstatic. This time, Prayan was healthier. On her second visit, Mandira spent four months in the US, and spent the majority of the time taking care of Prayan.

“Prayan wouldn’t move around or play much, but after I arrived there and started to spend time with him, play with him, and give him solid food, he became more active and stronger,” she says.

Grandparents, specifically grandmothers, migrating to foreign countries to care for their grandchildren is a common phenomenon in our Nepali society. While the initial 2021 census report states that there are 2,169,478 Nepalis living abroad, the number is considered to be grossly undercounted by the experts.

According to a Pew Research Center factsheet, there were 198,000 Nepalis living in the US in 2019, which included 17,820 children under the age of five.

Seventy-eight percent of Nepalis lived in a married-couple household, while the median annual household income of Nepalis was $55,000($30,500 less than that of all Asians in the US).

Since the average hourly rate for a nanny can start from $14.66 to $26.82 on average, which amounts to approximately $29,000 to $53,000 annually for full-time positions, Nepalis often invite their grandmothers to join them abroad to care for the children.

While the economic burdens of hiring a full-time nanny can be discouraging, Nepali diaspora families often feel that inviting grandparents is the natural and logical route to get help to take care of the children.

“The first time mommy came to the US in 2019, it had already been six years since I had last seen her,” says Sagun Bajracharya. “Since I had taken a break from work and she also joined me here, the thought of hiring a nanny never really crossed my mind.”

For grandmothers who have grandchildren in Nepal as well as in foreign countries, they often have to travel to and fro foreign countries to spend time with their grandchildren.

Kisamkala Maya Thapa, 70, returned to Nepal in the second week of May 2022 after a five-month stay in the US, her second visit there. Her younger daughter Kamala Thapa had moved to Dallas, Texas, five years ago with her husband, daughter, and son.

“When I was in the US, I would cook for the children, take them to school, and bring them home from school,” says Thapa. “Though they are both grown up (her granddaughter is nine and her grandson is seven), they still need someone to look after them when they are home.”

Meanwhile, Kisamkala’s elder daughter Laxmi Thapa lives in Butwal and has her own small business venture. Since Laxmi also has two daughters, Kisamkala also looks after them as much as she can.

“I actually don’t find travelling between different countries troublesome at all. You just hop on a plane and get where you need to be, but I am needed here as well there[in the US],” she says.

Meeting grandchildren can also be a strong reason to obtain visas for foreign countries. Majority of the grandmothers that the Post spoke to say that their visa interviews and application processes went smoothly when they applied for foreign visas to meet their grandchildren.

But the same wasn’t the case with 65-year-old Ganga Gurung. It took Ganga a long time for her to reunite with her son Arun Gurung and her daughter-in-law Jyoti Gurung. Her son is in the British Army and was initially posted in the UK, so she had applied for a UK visa three times but was rejected every time. When her son relocated to Germany, her daughter-in-law gave birth to her granddaughter. So when Ganga applied for a visa to Germany in 2019 to reunite with her family and meet her granddaughter, her visa application was granted.

“Afiya(Arun and Jyoti’s daughter) was the first grandchild of mine to be born so I really wanted to go and meet her,” she says.

She stayed in Germany for six months and helped to take care of her granddaughter as her daughter-in-law had also started working as a teacher. She had to return home after her visa for six months wasn’t renewed. Now her daughter-in-law stays at home to take care of the children as she gave birth to another daughter a year ago, Ganga says.

Grandmothers not only help to take care of the children but also help to continue traditional Nepali methods of caring for infants and small children. For example, the practice of massaging newborns with oil while sunbathing is common in Nepal, but the grandmothers the Post spoke to say that they had to go reunite with their grandchildren to continue this tradition.

“My daughter wasn’t really keen on oil massaging Prayan, so when I came to the US, I started this tradition, and I usually used to massage him three times a day,” says Mandira. “My daughter would also prefer to feed readymade food like baby formula, while I prefer to cook and feed lito, jaulo, and daal, bhat, and tarkari to my grandson.”

Neera Kansakar, 66-year-old, also echoes the same sentiments about continuing the traditional caring practices for children. Her son and daughter settled in Australia almost two decades ago, and she has visited Australia six times already on different occasions.

“After my daughter gave birth to my grandson, she was hesitant to give an oil massage to him,” she says. “However, when I went there, I would do it at least once a day.”

But the proliferation of technology has also made it easier for grandmothers to stay connected to their grandchildren and their families abroad. Kansakar says that she doesn’t feel detached from her grandchildren nowadays.

“My son and daughter video call me almost every evening, so it’s not lonely as much in the olden times,” she says. “If I couldn’t see my children and grandchildren, that would have been a different thing.”

But for some grandmothers like Mandira, the virtual connection isn’t enough. Though she regularly video calls her grandson, she already wants to return to the US to be with her grandson. The sense of pining and longing is reciprocated, too.

“Children don’t feel lonely when there are grandparents around, and it’s the same thing for grandparents, too,” says Mandira. “After I returned to Nepal, my daughter told me that Prayan was searching for me in the room where I used to sleep and in the puja room where I used to frequent. When I heard how much he missed me, I couldn’t stop crying.”

The Kathmandu Post

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