Canberra had only 70 residents born in Nepal ten years ago. The last census counted 5,700
When one of Nepal’s top rock bands recently performed on stage in Canberra, they weren’t expecting a sold-out show.
The group was born in 1974 AD, and for three decades captured the hearts of its native land for its blend of romantic rock and Nepalese nationalism.
Guitarist Manoj Kumar KC says he is surprised by the fervor of Australian fans, 10,000 km from his country of origin.
“All the concerts are sold out, and people are really excited, throughout the concert, and they sing songs, like, back to back,” he says.
He says a sold-out show in Canberra would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
Canberra becomes ‘little Kathmandu’
Thousands have traded the Himalayas for a life in Canberra, according to the latest count.
Canberra’s Nepali-born community has grown 80-fold in a decade, from just 70 in 2011 to around 5,700 last year.
More Nepalese now live in the ACT than New Zealanders, and Nepali is the third most spoken language at home after English and Mandarin.
Canberra estate agent Dikshant Dhungel came to Australia when his diplomat father was posted here more than 15 years ago.
He and his parents loved Canberra so much they stayed.
“There’s a good sense of community. It’s getting big! It’s great,” says Mr. Dhungel.
Architecture student Anusha Nagarkoti is one of many people who left their families in Nepal to pursue the dream of studying in Australia.
She says her rapidly growing community is culturally vibrant and supportive.
“I miss home, but here all our friends are like family,” she says.
“We’re learning to be independent, confident, from here. Back home, we won’t – we’ll depend on our parents.”
Working hard “in our genes”
Census data confirms that those who are part of the Himalayan exodus are mostly young, middle-class emigrants – especially students.
Commonwealth incentives encouraged them to move to the regions, and many settled in Canberra to study, work or both.
Nepali workers are strongly represented in Canberra’s childcare and elderly sectors, restaurants and hospitality venues and supermarkets.
Many work part-time jobs to fund their studies.
A Nepalese chef told the ABC: “They all come from a hard-working culture. We all work hard. It’s in our genes.”
The census confirmed that Nepali migrants were predominantly young, with a median age of 28, and approximately 55% male.
And data from the Ministry of Interior shows that more than half of all temporary visas granted to Nepalese residents in 2020-2021 were for students.
Nepal’s new ambassador to Australia, Kailash Pokharel, himself recently arrived; he began his assignment in Canberra in July.
He says the capital’s Nepalese diaspora could be much larger than official data suggests, due to confusion surrounding the filling out of census forms.
“The current census, the 2021 census, says there are around 5,600 people here, but community leaders are saying more than that … so maybe more than 10,000,” Mr Pokharel said.
The Ambassador says there are many similarities between ACT and his home in the Kathmandu Valley.
“Canberra looks very nice, it looks like the topography of Nepal,” says Mr Pokharel.
“It’s like a valley with the hills behind – but not as big as the Himalayas.”
Choose to stay or go home
As many Nepalese seek permanent residency in Australia, Mr Pokharel hopes they will bring their skills and qualifications back to their home country to help the country develop.
The World Bank says Nepal is one of the poorest countries in Asia and that overseas remittances – money sent by Nepalese working abroad – make up almost a quarter of the country’s GDP.
The landlocked nation sits between the two most populous countries in the world – India and China – and has a population of around 30 million.
Although only a few million more people than Australia, Nepal is 53 times smaller, hemmed in by the Himalayan range to the north and the jungle lowlands to the south.
There have been calls for skilled workers to eventually return home to help solve the challenges of the developing nation.
Anusha Nagarkoti says she plans to return to her family after finishing her studies and encourages others to do so as well.
“Remember that you have to go back and do the same in your country, to develop your country too,” she says.
“It’s very important to take your skills home.”
A taste of Kathmandu in Canberra
Some members of the Nepali community say its members remain largely alone in their adopted country, but they have a growing influence on the city’s food and music.
“Momo vans” have been popping up across Canberra, serving Nepalese food to a burgeoning clientele.
Sushant Pantha has been in the ACT for four years and often steams the dumpling delights for homesick Nepalese near Edison Park in Woden.
“Basically, momos are dumplings – marinated with lots of spices, vegetables and served steamed,” he says.
“I think the chutney is the best part of it – the tomato sauce comes alongside which just makes it good.
“You can call it the best dish in Nepal, momo.”
Steamed, fried, chilli, chicken, vegetable, beef or paneer (cheese) – all enjoyed by local Nepalese who congregate outside the van, sitting on crates of milk reversed.
“They love the sauce, they love the marinade, they love the juicy part.”
The Nepalese also like to party.
The country has a richly mixed religious heritage, with numerous Hindu and Buddhist festivals providing an excuse to eat, dance and have fun.
This was abundantly evident at the recent 1974 AD concert, as the crowd waved Nepal’s distinctive red and white flags at the standing-room event.
By the time the band finished with their fan favorite – the patriotic anthem “Nepali Ho” – the roof was almost lifted from the venue.
Freely translated, it opens on the line:
“Do anything, say anything, take me anywhere, but my heart will always be a Nepalese – no matter what.”
Even, it seems, in Canberra.