Jigmi Wangdi and Choki Wangmo 

As the wheels of the Airbus gently hit the tarmac, folksy music resounded in the plane. Dorji has just landed at the Paro International Airport after a brief stay in Australia. He was overwhelmed with emotions. 

In his prime years, Dorji made a life-changing decision—he wanted a better life for his family—everyone told him Australia was the best place to mint money. Today, he regrets joining the rat race. “I dreamt of many things before making the decision to move to Australia, but it is one of my darkest days,” says the 40-year-old. 

Within his two months stay in Australia, Dorji and his partner felt themselves sinking deeper into the abyss of mental illness. It was empty, lonely, and dark, he recalls. 

While there is so much pomp surrounding the Australian dream, there are people like Dorji, for whom the dream did not work out as imagined. Millions in debt, they return home, seeking the peace of mind they felt they lost in the bustling cities of the continent.

As of January 2023, more than 30,000 Bhutanese are living abroad in 113 countries, 10, 911 of them in Australia. Rough estimates show that more than 50,000 Bhutanese are vying to leave for the southern hemisphere. 

Despite the exodus, there is a countable number of them who are back home, fearing judgement from society tagging them as failures. They fear stigmatisation and hide in the shadows. 

The price of their dreams is heavy. 

Dorji did not feel belonged in the city. Although a group of Bhutanese shared the same house, they barely had time to see each other. “We set appointments for a meal.”

He tried working as a kitchen hand.

It was difficult for Dorji, who was used to working a desk job in the offices back home. He seriously questioned his decision. 

Culture shock added to his dilemma.

Like Dorji, those who returned home said that the majority of Bhutanese living down under are caught in the vicious cycle—the need to make more money to pay off loans despite a heavy physical and mental toll. While those in their 40s could make the hard decision to return home, younger ones are trying to make a living through the struggles. 

“Every morning, I wake up with the thoughts of being home. I miss Bhutan,” said a 30-year-old woman who recently moved to Australia. 

While there are many young people who want to return home, they are restricted by financial conditions—student loans and a shortage of money for flight tickets. 

“They are young, and have nothing to fall back on at home. They have to endure the physical and mental sufferings,” one returnee said. 

“I thought it was just me. Until I talked to my friends, who too were going through the same hardships,” Dorji said. “However, no one comes forward to talk about the struggles they face. They only display the good things on social media.” 

“We are deceived by pictures of sunshine and beaches,” says a woman who returned home after two months’ stay in Australia. 

The former civil servant said that if not for the support garnered by the Bhutanese people in Australia, she wouldn’t have survived the days there. “Once you pay your fees, no one cares about your welfare.” 

She suffered from depression. 

She thinks that pursuing dreams abroad is not worth it as it is similar to exchanging one’s precious life for money. “I left a good job and pursued the Australian dream. I have millions in debt but it is better than living an emotionally painful death down under.” 

The money earned, she said, was better when remitted to Bhutan due to the conversion rate, but very insufficient to make a living in Australia. A major chunk of her earnings was paid as university fees.

Women are more vulnerable due to the tough conditions. “As we try to build from scratch, we have to seek help from others,” she said adding that to make ends meet—fees and rent—women have to live in conditions that are at times inhumane, which makes them vulnerable to molestation and sexual harassment. 

After coming back home, Dorji was able to convince two of his friends from leaving for Australia. He shared his experiences that helped his friends rethink their decisions. 

Another man who was a teacher by profession took an extraordinary leave and went to Australia with his wife. Within six months of his stay there, he suffered from depression. “I could not adapt to the working environment and the way of life. Everything was totally different from my expectations,” he said. 

He couldn’t work and study. As suggested by his wife and relatives, he returned home and joined his teaching career. After several visits to the psychiatrists, he is better now. 

Many lost their life’s purpose in Australia. “I no longer know what I want from life. I just have a hazy grasp of reality,” one said. 

A 43-year-old man was forced by unanticipated circumstances to move to Australia. After three years, in 2019, the former civil servant returned home, he was “unhappy and dissatisfied”. 

He would make four times as much in a week as he did in Bhutan in a month, but he felt that something was missing from his life. 

Choden and Singye, a Bhutanese couple residing in Western Australia, have good jobs and are happy. Regardless of their income, they hardly have any time for their parents. They have to worry about their parents’ health and they hope to return soon. 

Choden added, “I lost my father after coming here but all I could do was financially contribute some amount for his funeral rituals. If I were still in Bhutan, I would have struggled for that.”

In 2018, Pema accompanied his partner in her studies in Australia. After 10 months, he returned home. “Three months into my stay there, I found myself questioning my decision.” 

He missed his three-year-old daughter and it weighed heavy on him. He resorted to drinking, further plunging into depression. “Money was good but it was physical labour, working 12-14 hours a day, six days a week in a recycling plant.” 

He did not find a sense of fulfilment or joy. “I missed my daughter and all the money that I was making had no value, meant nothing when I couldn’t see or be with my daughter,” Pema said. 

He couldn’t share his inner turmoil even with his closest ones for fear of disappointing them. On his daughter’s fourth birthday, he returned home and did not go back. “I think I made the best decision by returning, and my daughter appreciates that. Although I have less money, I have so much more.”

While there are many opportunities in Australia, he said, there were many sacrifices too. 

A Perth resident said that many Bhutanese cannot adapt to Australia as they are unfamiliar with many things, particularly the traffic system. Some, who held officer-level positions back home are frustrated doing blue-collar jobs. 

Additional reporting by KP Sharma and Chencho Dema. 

Disclaimer: As requested, the names used in the story have been changed.