interview with a gurkhas grad student

One of the great things about being at the University of Edinburgh  is having the opportunity to interact with so many interesting minds. Chandra Sing Gurung is one of those students. A Nepalese with three degrees and two more pending, Chandra has the kind of life story that would be featured on This American Life. It’s epic, moving, and cliché  — but in the best possible way.

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Born in a small rural village in Western Nepal, Chandra had always wanted to excel in academics. However, due to poverty and the death of his mother when he was seven years old, he was only able to finish primary school. It was not until he was sixteen-and-a-half years old that he had the opportunity to leave his village and pursue education. Undergoing one of the most difficult and competitive selection processes in the world, Chandra was chosen out of hundreds of thousands of hopeful youth to join the legendary Nepalese Gurkhas soldiers. Joining Gurkhas makes you a hero in the villages,” says Chandra, “From the UK or American perspective, it’s like getting a place for postgraduate studies at Oxford or Harvard. That’s how tough it is to be a Gurkhas.” Chandra was selected for Singapore Gurkhas.

While stationed in Singapore, he took night classes in Business Information Technology at an off-shore campus of the University of Central England in Birmingham in Singapore. Entirely self-funded and self-driven, Chandra was the first Gurkhas in the history of Singapore to receive a bachelor’s degree. “I am a military man,” explains Chandra, ”while you’re with the Gurkhas, education is totally distant from what you do.” Despite the lack of formal encouragement, Chandra continued on with his education. In 2007, he received a Master of Arts in International Relations from Flinders University of South Australia in Singapore. In 2008, he received a Master of Science in Strategic Studies from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. In the Gurkhas, he rose to the rank of Commission Officer (Inspector), the Gurkhas equivalent of an army second lieutenant, “which is given to the ‘best of the best’ among the Gurkhas.” Chandra recently decided to pursue a doctorate in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. He is now pursuing a Master of Science in Social Anthropology as a part of his PhD and will be a PhD candidate from September 2009. His research interest is the Gurkhas diaspora, with a focus on the Gurkhas in the United Kingdom.

Chandra was kind enough to let me interview him, so over fanta, green tea, and cookies, we talked about his experiences in Nepal, Singapore, and Edinburgh.

How was the transition from Singapore to Edinburgh?

My transition from Singapore to Edinburgh was fairly smooth. I was in Edinburgh before, so I knew what to expect. However, there were things that surprised me. Coming from Asia, I thought that Westerners were not very serious about their education, so when I came here and went to the library, I saw all my classmates reading and studying all day, I was very surprised. The students at the University of Edinburgh are very hardworking and bright, perhaps the best minds in their field of studies.

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What has been your greatest challenge in Edinburgh?

My major challenge was in the first semester. Because my first two masters were in totally different fields, Strategic Studies and International Relations, I lost in terms of disciplinary language when I was attending seminars in Social Anthropology the first semester.

The next challenge was, I wanted to get distinction in my master’s modules, but when I received my first semester’s results, I got distinction in none of the modules – that was a real challenge. In the second semester, I got the rhythm, I am much better now, but my challenge of getting distinction is still going on.

What advice would you give to international students?

When international students leave their own country and they are in UK, I suggest they learn the culture and language of the host country. At the same time, exchange the culture and language of their own with host country as well as with other international students. Take the best thing to their home countries. It doesn’t mean they have to do everything; they can filter the best things and take them to their own countries.

I encourage international student to be more active, rather than passive, so that they will make more friends and student life will be more fun. Participate in as much activities as possible within the University and beyond. For example, I had never done yoga in Asia, although I could have done, but I started doing it here. Currently, I am learning capoeira (Brazilian martial art cum dance) and Scottish Ceilidh is something I love doing now.

The idea here is, participating in activities broadens your stay mentally and physically. With these activities, you will make your life a lot more interesting as a student and at the same time, you learn a lot more. With so much goes on at University of Edinburgh and so many events that take place in Edinburgh, I reckon it is a great opportunity be here in Scotland.

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What do you hope to do in the future?

My immediate aim is to complete a PhD and then gain some research experience in the Western world. Thereafter, I would like to return to Nepal where there is a huge brain drain. Most of the intellectuals in Nepal are leaving for greener pasture, probably due to ongoing political conflict. I, however, believe, as the citizen of Nepal, I should return to Nepal and impart the knowledge and skills that I have gained so far, I believe in contributing whatever way I am able to help Nepal. I believe the notion the good use of knowledge is an honour, and sharing is caring. There are many people to whom I can be a great help especially in my motherland.

My strategy is to teach at University in Nepal, and I would also like build a big public library at the heart of Kathmandu. There are university libraries, but, sadly, there is no public library in Nepal even at the beginning of the new millennium. To achieve my goal, if there is an absolute need, I will even go into politics, but that would be my last priority.

Situation changes, so does the strategy, hence, I wouldn’t exactly be able to tell you what I will be doing to fulfill my life long goal of helping people.

What do you think it will be like going back?

Although I lived in Singapore for a long time and am now in Edinburgh, I still have my own relationship with Nepal. There will be challenges since I have been away from Nepal for a long time. However, it’s possible to overcome these challenges. Being in the Gurkhas has made it easier for me to assimilate and adjust to new environments.

People in Nepal may have a different perception of scholars educated in the Western World, but I will see what strategy fits better. I am an optimist, “nothing is impossible, it is only impossible until one finds a solution to make it possible.”

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