It has been ten years since I returned to India after spending seven years in Beijing. Looking back at my seven-year stint in Beijing, I have become convinced of the value of an international ‘immersion experience’. I can identify three aspects of such an experience: a) dealing with an alien eco-system; b) questioning pre-conceived mindsets; c) Realising the oneness of humanity
Dealing With an Alien Ecosystem
The first element of moving abroad is that it forces someone to confront an unfamiliar eco-system. Since I had very limited knowledge of pinyin, China’s linguistic barrier further exacerbated a certain sense of alienation. I was awarded the Nehru Memorial Fellowship from the Teen Murti Foundation to support my fieldwork. I was affiliated with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. I recall my first day in China as a very hot July afternoon when I walked into a restaurant near the guest house of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. I made what I thought was an innocuous request for a glass of water from the waitress. As it turned out, my immersion process in Chinese mores started right at that very moment! Once I asked for a glass of water, the waitress asked me what type of water?
I was perplexed and pointed out one of the types she was mentioning. I quickly realised that she was serving hot water to me. It's only later I realised that in China, you have a variety of water depending on the temperature of the water you want to drink. So, you have baikai shui (normal water) re shui (hot water), wen shui (lukewarm water), bing shui (cold water), and then you have cha shui (water with tea).
This experience made me realise that in order to survive in China in a professional capacity I must quickly cultivate a deeper knowledge of the local customs and language.
Taking the Plunge: My Tryst With Mandarin
The two months in Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS) were very hectic. Colleagues in SASS made me feel most welcome; the two months passed in a jiffy. As I was winding up my short stay, life had something else in store for me. I got the news that I had received the China Government Fellowship. Under this prestigious fellowship, I was fortunate to be given an opportunity to pursue my PhD in the School of Government, Peking University. It was not an easy decision to take the fellowship; I had much to consider.
I finally decided to take the plunge (xiahai). I registered myself at Peking University, eagerly waiting to make new friends. During a conversation with one of my new friends, I came to know that a PhD from Peking University means that I will be required to submit my doctoral thesis in Mandarin. I thought the friend was pulling my leg. To clarify my doubt, I approached the office of the School of Government.
They informed me that while I would be allowed to write my doctoral thesis in English, I would have to defend my dissertation in Mandarin.
Once I knew that I would have to defend my doctoral thesis in Mandarin, my task was cut out. I am often asked how difficult Mandarin is. My experience taught me that no matter how tough any assignment is, once pushed to the wall, human beings are blessed with the ingenuity to overcome odds. I knew that if I must successfully complete my doctoral studies from this prestigious university and, more importantly, be associated with China studies, I need to take my language classes seriously. As I had done the groundwork for my research, I decided to spend the next two years learning Mandarin. Twenty-five hours of language classes per week formed my routine. I partnered with a Chinese friend studying in the Hindi department so we could help each other.
Help From Unexpected Quarters
As my doctoral thesis was nearing completion, I got a lot of support from my Chinese friends and my supervisor Prof Shen Mingming. Once I successfully completed my doctoral thesis defense, there was an issue. My doctoral degree was withheld in the absence of written communication allowing me to write my thesis in English. The next one year was quite a nightmare.
The person who verbally informed me during my admission to Peking University, that I would be allowed to write my thesis in English had retired. Unfortunately, I couldn't even recall the name of the person. It took another year for the authorities to sort this out. It later emerged that Peking University had a mutual understanding with foreign universities and allowed students from partner universities to write their thesis in their native language. The Dean and Assistant Dean persisted in helping me and took it upon themselves to ensure that the degree was awarded.
Whenever I am asked by my fellow Indians whether I faced any discrimination in as an Indian in China, I remember these numerous occasions when help came from unexpected quarters.
Getting Out of My Comfort Zone
My seven-year stay in Beijing has taught me that we cannot plan everything in life in advance. Some friends mocked my decision to get married while I was still a student. They said it would delay my PhD completion. But I wanted to look at life through a different lens. I said to myself that a ‘settled personal experience’ could help me focus on my academics. This decision forced me to come out of my comfort zone and inspired me to dig deep and develop an outlook that has taught me the art of dealing with tough situations. These situations forced me to learn the art of balancing personal and professional demands.
Realising the Oneness of Humanity
There are many experiences that I experienced in Beijing, but one memory surpasses all of them and has become a moment to cherish lifelong. In China, people exchange moon cakes just before the mid-autumn festival, which falls on the fifteenth of September every year. In the second week of September, we used to get flooded with moon cakes. Not knowing what to do, my wife Rama suggested we distribute the moon cakes to the security guards and the domestic helps. We thought a small gift would bring a smile to their faces. We also carried some moon cakes for our friend from whom we used to buy fruits in the nearby market. A middle-aged man with the innocent appearance of a child, he accepted our gift, although with some hesitance.
The week after when we went for our weekly grocery shopping, our fruit seller friend started putting all kinds of fruits into a basket without us asking for them. Very soon, fruits sellers in the vicinity also came over and started gifting us all sorts of fruits. We were surprised to see this outpouring of love and affection. Despite our insistence they refused to charge anything for their fruits.
Upon return, as I was reflecting upon the whole episode, I started to realise that irrespective of our race and nationality, perhaps all humans are deeply connected by feelings of affection and compassion.
The Relevance of India-China Ties
As someone who has benefited immensely at the personal and professional fronts from my stay in China, I feel that I have a sense of duty and responsibility to play a modest role, whatever it is worth, in developing awareness about China in India. There are two schools of thought in India as regards India's relationship with China.
One section, though in the minority, considers China to be a friend. If China is a friend, then more reasons to cultivate stronger ties with them. The other school of thought considers China to be an adversary. Knowing an adversary is more critical, if not for the adversary, for our own sake. In short, be it a friend or adversary, there is no questioning the relevance of an informed understanding of China. If India must realise its objective of becoming a significant power, it is very pertinent for us to explore multiple and deeper levels of engagement with China. The current coronavirus crisis has tested the political will of India to develop deeper ties with China. India has rightly reached out to China and has been trying to do its best to support China in its fight against the virus. Such gestures will go a long way in anchoring bilateral ties between the neighbours.
(Dr G Venkat Raman is a PhD from Peking University, and is a faculty member at Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Indore. This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)