Nepali Times
Seven years with my Korean fathers

In 28 January, 1992, I left Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport to go to Korea to work. My family shed tears as they placed a khada around my neck. As I walked toward the aircraft, I looked back and saw my mother and aunt crying and waving to me from the balcony of the airport. I shed no tears.

BACK HOME: Pasang with Korean friends (left, centre) and his aunt, who he now helps run a small momo and tongba shop in Kathmandu.

When we landed at Kimpo airport, I walked quickly to the immigration counter. The broker had told us to stand in line behind westerners, if possible, so that the inspection would not be very thorough. But everyone in the line was South Asian. My legs were trembling and my heart was pounding. If I couldn't get a visa, I would have to return to Nepal. I had borrowed Rs 70,000 to try to get a job in Korea. After the interview, which was easier than I thought, I received a visa for a 15-day stay. It seemed that what the broker was right, it was better to give short answers. Almost everyone received the visa without problems.

We took a taxi from the airport to Itaewon Street, which is similar to Thamel. There were many Nepalis among the swarms of foreigners there, and we felt at ease. There we met a man called Raju Thapa, who was responsible for finding us jobs. On the subway to Uijongbu, Raju said that we must never stare at young women on the train, as it would cause a big problem. So for two hours we stared out of the darkened windows, like idiots. I was really worried about whether or not I would be able to make a living in this country.

Raju took us to the home of the company's owner, Mr Yoo, in Uijongbu. His family had never known foreigners before, and were curious about all sorts of things. We didn't have much of an appetite for Korean food, so we ate bread and milk. Raju told us Mr Yoo would give us $400 per month, and that our salaries would gradually increase. We didn't even think to check that. The day that we arrived at 00 Steel's sales outlet in the town of Taesangli, Kwangju, in the province of Kyonggi, it was snowing. I had suddenly come to this snowy country and was really worried about living here.

The first day was really hard because of the language barrier. I used body language, my hands and feet. Outside, the snow was piling up and it was very cold-ten degrees below zero. For the first time in my life I was so far from home. How was I going to live there? Fortunately, one of the labourers who worked with me loading and unloading goods from the truck spoke a little English. Jae Gil Kim was about my age. Thanks to him, I learnt to speak Korean quickly. He taught me the work too. Whenever we had time, we sat on the packing boxes and studied. I am still grateful to him. Employees of Mr Yoo's personal service company, we provided services such as loading, unloading, and transporting metal furniture such as file boxes, clothes cabinets, lockers, desks, chairs, etc for 00 Steel's sales outlet.

My name is Pasang Sherpa. I was born in the village of Lungtung, eastern Nepal, at 1,500 m in the foothills of Kangchenjunga in 1971, the oldest of three sons and two daughters. I attended high school in Lelep town, about an hour-and-half's walk away. I was the only one in my high school class to pass the university entrance exam. My mom slaughtered and prepared a large goat and held a party for the whole village. It was natural for my mother, who only has a third grade education, to be elated about the fact that her son could enter the university.

In 1990, I entered the People's Campus college in Kathmandu. I lived in Chhetrapati with my aunt, who made tongba. My aunt and I worked busily from 4PM to midnight. We made tongba from more than 100 kg of millet every day. It wasn't easy. You have no idea how cold our hands and feet were when they got wet. I went to school at 6AM and took classes for three hours. I continued this for two years, and during that time I kept hearing about college friends going overseas to earn money. I too began thinking about working overseas. I then met the broker and left my native land.

Pasang Sherpa with his friend, Sri Ram, after both returned to Kathmandu.

Soon after, I was joined by another Nepali, Sri Ram. Mr Yoo told us not to refer to him as the owner, but to call him father. We did just that. We worked for "father" Yoo for over three years. We went to his house in Uijongbu for rest and relaxation every Saturday. We played cards, ate barbecued pork, drank soju (clear, hard Korean liquor), and went to karaoke. His wife really treated us well, preparing delicious food for us, even giving us clothes to wear.

But the first year I was lonely and cold every day. The fear of deportation was the biggest fear for foreign workers who were staying in Korea illegally. Once, a policeman entered our workplace. Sri Ram hid in a container of styrofoam, and I, with my small frame, hid in the closet. It's funny now, but at that time it made my hair stand on end.

For a while, I could only think of my home and family. Sometimes I cried. Soon thereafter I learned to speak a little Korean, how to do the work, the names of the products, and my skills in loading and unloading goods increased, and the work gradually became fun.

We had to unload 27-ton containers from the 00 Steel factory in Taejeon, and three 8-ton trucks, and put their contents in the warehouse, and then load more than ten 2.5-ton trucks and more than twenty 1.5 ton truck loads of goods. I really worked hard. We also completely changed the work methods. Instead of moving goods on a wagon, we carried them on our backs, shoulders, or heads. We cut down the unloading time of a large container of goods from three hours to one hour.

Since we didn't even spare our own bodies in order to do the work, everyone from the outlet and the company as well as the main company praised us. Mr Yoon Kwan Ho, an assistant manager consoled us by buying alcohol for us when we were sad or when times were difficult for us, and also slept with us at the hotel. I'll never forget him.

I respected my many fathers in Korea, but Father Kang was the only one of them who really treated us like his own children. We ate and slept with father for five years. I can still hear his voice calling, "Wake up kids! It's time to eat!" Sometimes he insulted us too, but he enabled us to experience a parent's love in that far away land, so we were able to forget the difficulties of living such a hard life there.

We referred to the men in our village as "cousin". We especially liked one of them, a taxi driver whose house wasn't far from us. There was also a lady at the Tae Ung supermarket, where we were regular customers, who we cannot forget. She prepared a table full of food for us when we returned from Seoul and told her that we were hungry. We lived in Taesangli like this for six years, and developed strong bonds with our neighbours. It became just like our hometown.

Father Kang also did construction work and we worked on projects with him over the weekends. After our first project, Mr Yoo congratulated us and gave each of us 10,000 won, about $11. If we used that money to bathe at the public bath house/sauna and have Chinese noodles at a cheap restaurant, we would be left penniless. If Korean labourers did that kind of hard work, they would receive several tens of thousands of won. However, if I had worked in Nepal, I wouldn't have even been able to receive even that much. We continued to do construction work on each of our days off for five months, increasingly dreading the weekends.

After we had worked for three months, Mr Yoo indicated to us, using hand gestures, that our salary would increase by a certain amount, and would do so every six months. We didn't know by how much it would increase, but we worked even harder. Mr Yoo didn't pay us our salaries every month. "If I give you your salaries, you'll spend it all at once. I'll save it for you and then give it to you in one lump sum in the future when you need it," he said. But he only gave us $400, or 375,000 won per month, for 27 months from February 1992. Only for the last five months did he give us 500,000 won per month. And he withheld 1 million won of my salary. I was dumbfounded.

We talked to Mr Yoo. "We trusted you like a father, and continued to work, thinking that you had been saving our money for us. You told us many times that our salary would increase, so why did it remain the same as it was in the beginning?" He only replied, "Shut up!" and "Be quiet!" We were in the country illegally, and so couldn't complain. We had worked with Mr. Yoo for three years like this. The 00 Steel company had about 20 agencies in Kyongi province alone and we went to deliver goods to each of them. Most of the people there were kind. I feel grateful to those who treated us so warmly.

Our work was difficult, but we were able to see a lot of Korea. One time, our driver was tired and drove by mistake until we arrived at the army checkpost. We had to submit to questioning and a body search by the military police. They said they had no way of knowing whether we were from Nepal or North Korea. After half-an-hour of wrangling, we were released.

After seven years of hard labour, my body was worn down. I have bone aches and other internal body aches. Boils appeared here and there all over my body, but even though I went to the hospital and was treated, I never got any better. According to the doctor, my vertebra and body frame had become twisted.

One day, we saw an article in the morning newspaper about a demonstration by foreign workers in Myoungdong. The company president said, "Those sons of bitches! If they go to another country to earn money, why don't they just earn it and leave? What are they demonstrating for? And that goes for you too, if you do that you'll end up with nothing. Understand?"

We replied, "Oh no, we don't plan to live here for the rest of our lives. If we want to demand our rights, we'll go back to our country." But we couldn't be indifferent to their plight. I had read articles about other foreign workers who had come to Korea to earn money like me, but who ended up losing their hands or feet in accidents, or didn't receive their pay, or were deported from the country, or even worse, who committed suicide. We spent one or two months like this.

One-and-a-half years passed without us receiving our salaries, then the IMF crisis struck. The cost of living rose, the number of people out of work skyrocketed, factories went bankrupt, and the government was looking unstable. It was a heavy blow to everyone, including foreign labourers like us. It seemed that it was time for us to go home to our country. We started saying goodbye to the people who seemed like family to us. Everyone was melancholy, and we couldn't help crying the last time we met.

We worked until five days before our departure on 1 April, 1998. The company president owed us back pay from January 1997 to April 1998. The day before we left, he told us that he had no money then, but he would soon bring it to us in Nepal. We felt as if the whole sky had just collapsed on top of us. He gave us 2 million won ($1,100). We went shopping and got one suit, one mini CD, a small automatic camera, an airplane ticket, three pairs of pants, a travel bag, a backpack, three pairs of slippers, four fashion watches, and 10 T-shirts on sale.

It felt like we had fallen from a great height. The son in the family, who had gone away to earn money, was returning for the first time in seven years, penniless. I felt depressed thinking about what my relatives would say. And I hadn't been able to send money home for a long time. I had already called my family and told them that I would bring some money back with me. Of course, my parents would just be happy to have me back, with or without money. But I had earned that money with my blood and sweat, it was very precious to me.

My mother and cousins were waiting for me at Tribhuvan International Airport. We took a taxi to our house in Kathmandu, where my mother said, "This is the house we built through your suffering. How do you like it?". The next day, it was with great difficulty that I informed my mother that I had returned with only $100. She didn't get upset about it.

I believed in the company president. I believed that he'd bring us the money when his situation improved. But October passed. By April, the money still hadn't arrived. When I called his house, I got a recording saying that the number was no longer in service. After that, I called the business department of 00 Steel Company. I got the same message that time, too.

Meanwhile, two Koreans had started to frequent my aunt's restaurant before I returned to Nepal. After getting to know this couple, I told them what had happened, and they agreed to help. Thanks to the efforts of Mrs Jeong, the woman, I got a phone call from the company president. You have no idea how happy I was. He asked me to return to Korea. He said that first, he'd send money for a plane ticket through Mrs Jeong, and to come quickly. A few days later, she received about $600 for me. The company president called five or six times a day to tell me to buy a plane ticket with the money and return quickly.

I wanted to go back. However, I was not in good health, and had no way to get a visa. I told him that, and never heard from him again. When I rang him, I heard, "This number is no longer in service".

I've been studying Korean hard for several months. I had already learned to read and write while I was in Korea, but the reason I was studying so hard now was because I wanted to write about the seven years I spent there, from the age of 20 to 27. As I continue to write, vivid memories of Korea come to mind and my eyes become moist with tears. And I still believe in our company president, who I called "father".

(Translated by Kim Hong Sung and Millicent Thapa from the Korean original by Pasang Sherpa, aka Phinzo Lama.)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)