1 family, 2 countries, 3 borders: Children and youth expressions of transnational love in contested spaces of family separation
Adrian Khan | 14 February 2020
‘Gateway to Gunasa’ - the entry point from a high altitude village in Dolpa, Nepal. Picture by the author.
I felt that my parents had abandoned me. 11 years with no communication is very hard. But when I went back to my village my thoughts changed. It isn’t that they have forgotten or care less for me, but it’s that they live in very difficult conditions. Now I won’t say that they don’t care for me, I even thank them for the opportunity to study but, reducing communication gaps would help to increase my feeling of being one family again… (Dharghey, 20, Upper Dolpa).
Similar to Dharghey’s emotional expressions, tears whelmed in 16-year-old Ketu’s eyes as he revealed that in the 10 years since he migrated to Kathmandu from his Trans-Himalayan village in Humla at the age of five, he had no visits or communication with his family. The trans-Himalayas (regions bordering and/or close to Tibet) consist of some of the most remote villages in the world. These regions have faced many forms of involuntary migration to date which result in long-term family separation across borders and the straining of emotional relationships between family members.
My ongoing research traces transmigration experiences of children and youth since 2010 which engages with their emotional (dis)connections when transitioning through different ‘life course stages’ and their personal articulations of emotions such as love. A major cause of emotional fragmentation of families across trans-Himalayan households was the Maoist insurgency (from 1996-2006). Many participants acknowledged that the Maoists trying to recruit one child from each household in many rural villages encouraged parents to send their children to boarding schools in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, to avoid recruitment. Nevertheless, even though children were safe in boarding schools, with the simultaneous advantage of access to urban education, the time participants stayed away from their rural homes and families often lasted over a decade with little to no contact.
Active communication between families in rural Himalayan villages and young people in Kathmandu is important since it helps to confirm relationships themselves. Furthermore, emotions such as love require active exchanges in order to avoid losing their social meaning. Communication technologies and ground transportations such as cars, busses, jeeps, and motorcycles were virtually non-existent in rural villages when participants arrived in Kathmandu between 1996-2006. Some journeys took more than three months by foot. In many trans-Himalayan locations to date these technologies still remain unavailable. Timing between potential family reunifications was sporadic and unpredictable. One week after the interview above took place, Ketu had the opportunity to meet his youngest brother and parents in Kathmandu for the first time in 11 years. During a follow-up interview he revealed:
That day was strange and unexpected for me. My father looked almost the same as before, but my mother really aged… They took me to a monastery one hour away to meet me [sic] brother. He was studying in Kathmandu for the past eight years and I didn’t know! He called me brother, but I told him not to as it felt strange… My parents gave me an aunt’s number in Kathmandu, but I told them from today don’t contact me yet… It isn’t that I don’t love them, but I can’t relate and communicate with them properly in Tibetan anymore… it will take time to heal… (Ketu, 16, Humla).
At first Ketu severed all ties with his family. After applying for an English teaching job at his brother’s Buddhist monastery, he began to slowly bridge his faint memories of his village to the ongoing relations with his sibling. However, he is still ambivalent towards doing so with his parents.
For some participants, it was after first-return visits to remote villages to claim citizenship documents that were important emotionally. After seeing the rural conditions which helped to rekindle feelings of love for their family and develop a new sense of transnational love across borders, their emotional ambivalence began to subside. Amar upon arrival to Mugu reflects:
At first, I sounded funny to my parents since my Tibetan was mixed with a deep Nepali dialect. They even questioned if I was really their son! However, after I roared with laughter for no reason, they did the same! Laughter made us bond, but that was soon replaced with somberness from my parents revealing my elder brother was stuck on the other side of the border in Tibet after he went for trade and was refused retry back into Nepal Since 2015 … (Amar, 15, Mugu).
Amar, like other participants, discovered that other family members also endured family separation from Maoist difficulties and the 2015 earthquakes which resulted in the open border with Tibet being closed. Open borders are an ambivalent topic since they facilitate free movement of people, goods, and capital, which can result in economic and socio-cultural benefits for Nepal. However, open borders also come with the risk of trafficking, drug smuggling, and other transnational crimes. Participants revealed how past relatives went to trade yaks for salt, rice, medicinal herbs, and other goods that contributed to everyday household sustenance. The closure of the border disrupted established trade relationships and Nepal witnessed a large influx of about 16,000 Tibetan refugees. The closure of the border also led to the displacement of trans-Himalayan families and ethnic enclaves across both sides of the border and a subsequent splitting of the family structure by some members being sent and/or migrating to Kathmandu.
Overall, participants expressed the fragmentation of their families across two countries, Nepal and Tibet, and across three borders, trans-Himalayan villages, Tibetan villages, and Kathmandu. This article and my ongoing work express hardships trans-Himalayan children and youth face when experiencing love through (trans)national relationships. Children and youth practice resilience by trying to maintain emotional relationships with their family across both geographical and emotional borders of separation.
Adrian is currently pursuing his PhD in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto and collaborative programs with the Centre for South Asian Studies and the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies. He has completed fieldwork in Canada, India, Guyana, France, America, Qatar and Nepal predominantly in the field of child/youth rights within educational and community development contexts. Adrian has been volunteering, working, and researching in Nepal since 2010 and in 2017-2019 volunteered as a Human Rights Specialist and Placement Coordinator for a local grassroots NGO called Volunteer Sewa. Adrian’s current research interests include youth activism in international contexts, race and racism, migration, cultural economy, participant action research, and social justice education.
Picture from Mugu, Nepal.