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Home > News > Columnists > B S Prakash

The Chinese Encounter

June 19, 2007

They were alert, intent, and intelligent faces. About sixty of them. Also young, well scrubbed, and formally dressed. Some were scribbling in their note pads; in tune with the times others were gently tapping on their laptops even as I spoke. None sat slack or lounged; they seemed firm and focused, engaged and energetic.

I was with a group of students. My regular readers know that I not only do this from time to time, but later subject them to my tale. I have done this before with Indian, American, and the ever expanding category called 'Indian-American' students who are now a sizable presence in most university campuses in the US.

This time though there was a big difference. I was in front of a group which was almost entirely Chinese, actually a mix of American-Chinese and regular Chinese from mainland China. Here was the context.

FACES -- Forum for American-Chinese exchanges at Stanford University had invited me as a speaker at their annual event. In its sixth year now, FACES annually brings together some really smart college students, half from the US but largely of Chinese origin and the other half from China.

The objective is to look at the world of tomorrow over three days with an emphasis on US-China relations. And this year for the first time one of the subjects in the seminar was 'The rise of India and the implications for China and the US'. I was amongst a panel of speakers.

Now, the subject, why, the very concept was welcome from my point of view. China has loomed large and continues to do so in the US, be it in politics, business or academics. Discussions on the rise of China are frequent and are even a familiar part of the discourse. 'The rise of India' getting noticed is more recent in terms of public and media attention but the pace is accelerating. These days you cannot open The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal without seeing some story or the other about India, generally positive, though not always. The manifest curiosity about India in a near exclusive Chinese audience in America was a new experience for me.

Like many of my colleagues in the foreign service, I too am fascinated by China, its history, culture, tribulations and turmoil, scale and success. Alas, the course of my career has not given me an opportunity to spend any significant time in that country. The IFS is sufficiently professional so as to send mainly Chinese knowing diplomats to China and I am not one of them.

I did visit China for discussions but as it happened it was at the time of the height of the SARS epidemic. It was a good time for seeing the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square with hardly any tourists, but not a great time for interaction as people had to keep their mouths covered!

San Francisco, where I live at present, however, is the best place in the US to observe Chinese customs and culture, albeit superficially. It has the oldest and the largest China town in America and a community which came here first in 1850. I happily take in the sights and sounds and enjoy the delectable dim sum that this city has to offer, but meeting a group of students face to face was surely a special privilege.

I looked at the eager faces once again. Generalisations are always bad and are to be avoided and ethnic generalisations even more so, but having said that, a record of my observations on how this group looked different may not be blasphemous.

I compared them and their style with the Indian students that I come across in American universities. There were some commonalities: The bright look, the transparent eagerness for information which acts as an elixir for any speaker, the relatively small build compared to regular Americans students and the almost under-age appearance.

And striking differences: The Chinese boys, mostly in blazers and ties, girls in slacks and jackets, straight long hair neatly combed back, notebooks open, pens poised and a slightly deferential manner which I am told is characteristic of the Chinese faced with age and authority.

In a similar situation the Indian students like their American brothers and sisters are dressed uber-cool, a frayed T-shirt and jeans are the norm, irrespective of the gender. A bemused or sceptical expression. A slight disdain towards officialdom is the standard demeanor.

Both groups will be quick to ask questions and many questions, but as I noticed the Chinese stuck to the time and the queue. The Indian students can be a little more anarchic and pleasantly so. The world would be a very dull place, if we all became exactly alike, I thought as I noted these subtle distinctions in behavioural patterns with some amusement.

To my utter surprise in this sea of Chinese faces, the welcome to the proceedings were by Kabir Chadda, a Stanford student. Was it because of the subject being India, I wondered. That was not the case. It turned out that Kabir had grown up in Hong Kong, spoke fluent Chinese, had not only assimilated Chinese culture but was so integrated with the Chinese student community that he had become one of their key organisers. One more example of how the borders and the boundaries were being transcended in the global student community.

To come to the substance.

We were a panel of three and the other two were Americans, one an academic from New York and the other a strategic expert form Washington. The broad themes were the familiar: Will China and India cooperate or compete? Can the US have good relations with both? Will there be two sets of bilaterals or can there be a triangular relation? How will the rise of India and China, and what is now sometimes called the rise of 'Chindia' affect the global order? And more in the same vein, known to those interested in the big ticket issues of international relations in any of the three countries-India, China or the US.

It would not be appropriate for me to dwell here on what I said. On such occasions I broadly follow the principle of the ancient wisdom: Satyam [Get Quote] bruyat; priyam bruyat... A modern rendering of this couplet would be: 'Speak the truth, stick to the pleasant, you don't need to dwell on unpleasant truths, nor articulate pleasant untruths.' Sound advice.

In any case all these are complex and highly debatable questions and much can be said on both sides of any of the 'either-or' issues. I can only summarise some impressions and insights that I gathered from the interaction. But, first, do remember that they were all young university students, in their twenties and not strategic pundits agonising over intractables.

First, I was struck by their curiosity about the future and their indifference to the past. The so called legacy issues -- the India-China dispute and the US-China differences of the yesteryears -- was known to them, but, vaguely. They were regarded as 'history'. Of greater interest was India's current strength in software, the competing demands for energy resources, the impact of growth on environment and so on.

Second, a preoccupation with economic and technological subjects rather than political or security concerns. Was this because of the locale -- Stanford and Silicon Valley; or the mix -- American and Chinese students together; or was it a clue to the concerns of the young? At any rate, their interests were in prognosis, not the past.

Third, the questions came quick and confident in fluent English and if I had any illusions that Indians have a lead in this language, it evaporated. All of us in the panel took on the questions and did as best as we could to satisfy their curiosity.

As we finished, it was lunch time and we trooped out in the lovely Californian weather to the outdoor locale where lunch was to be served under the trees. I was eagerly looking forward to some good spring rolls and stir-fried noodles. My escort, a Chinese student organiser, however, said that she hoped that it would be nan and chicken curry, in honour of the session devoted to India. 'I just love Indian curry', she said laughing. We reached the venue. Sandwiches from Subway were laid out in rows and we grinned at each other, though inwardly disappointed.

B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at

B S Prakash