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What 'Indian Culture' Really Means In China And Other Revelations (Part 1)

11/07/2016 4:36 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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This is the first installment of a two-part series on the divergences and confluences of the Chinese and Indian ways of life.

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As discussions swirl around China's reluctance to endorse India's Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) bid, I recall my experience of spending a few days in China last year, days that taught me about the Chinese and the Indian ways of life and where we meet with and depart from each other. This is not a political essay, neither is it a scholarly article on the implications of India's joining the NSG. Instead, here are some personal revelations that may help us understand ourselves better in relation to our Chinese neighbours.

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Approaching night, Kunming

My Chinese experience, which came about due to the Visva Bharati-Yunnan University exchange programme, began not in China, but on my way there, some 40,000ft above sea level on a cruising aeroplane. A 30-year-old Chinese promoter of Oppo Mobile struck up a casual conversation with me as I made myself comfortable beside him on the plane.

This English-speaking Chinese was a rare breed – he spoke to the flight attendant in Chinese, but when he wasn't happy with the service, he swiftly shifted gears and cursed in American English. He asked what I did and I answered that I was a student of English literature. He was disappointed with my answer. He declared that there was no money in literature. "If you were in China you would never get married," he said with conviction. A few days later, one of the Chinese volunteers who were assigned to take us around echoed the same sentiment when he told me jokingly how difficult it was to please a Chinese girl and how challenging it was to meet the demands of the mother in-law.

In India, the soul and heart are synonymous, but for the Chinese, it seems, matters of the soul are also processed through the intellect...

Coming back to the conversation on board the aircraft, I tried to put up a defence for my chosen path. I told this gentleman how literature widens one's horizons, how a job can be secured in a university or how one can take up writing as a profession. After a while he said half-convinced, "You should follow your soul." But, interestingly, he said so tapping his head. In India, the soul and heart are synonymous, but for the Chinese, it seems, matters of the soul are also processed through the intellect – and a utilitarian aspect to life is sought. A metaphor of this I found in a local Kunming restaurant, where I saw for the first time a toothpick with two sharp ends. Contrary to the ones we usually find in India, these had more utilitarian value, but when I put one in my pocket and started walking towards the hotel, it pricked me from time to time. As I took the toothpick out from my pocket I was reminded of the wise words of Rabindranath Tagore who had said, "A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes the hand bleed that uses it." Though I didn't bleed, for a soft Indian like me the ultra-utilitarian Chinese life proved to be somewhat painful.

For a soft Indian like me the ultra-utilitarian Chinese life proved to be somewhat painful.

To return to the conversation on board the flight, the gentleman asked me questions about India, cleared some of his doubts and then went on to assure me that he was "a man with a liberal mind." So I asked him some of the questions that had bothered me for a long time. "Why are Facebook, Gmail, YouTube and other Google products banned in China?" He informed me matter-of-factly that the government was compelled to withhold certain kinds of information from its citizens to prevent undesired uprisings. I told him if he knew about the government's rationale for controlling information, it is likely that more people were also aware of it, and perhaps could even guess what kind of information was being swept under the rug. He was a bit confused now but acknowledged what I'd said with a sly smile. "I am a conflicted man," he said. Conflict seemed to me to be the defining character of China. For instance, while there appeared to be total freedom in the way people dressed, especially the women who wore Western fashion with élan and roamed around the city well past midnight, I wondered about the culture of banning and censoring thoughts and opinions. This is the conflict that stealthily inhabits China and its people; it is like an open secret that is seldom acknowledged publicly.

My inability to speak Chinese had proved to be an advantage, allowing me to connect with the locals at a more intimate level.

We went to China with a group, half of which spoke Chinese and the rest managed with English and what can at best be described as sign language. I fell into the latter category. However, since the Chinese people have very little regard for the English language, it was difficult for non-Chinese speakers to communicate, leading to innumerable hurdles. As it happened, on the first morning of our stay two of us were late for breakfast while the others had already made their way to the restaurant. The restaurant was near our lodging, but my fellow sojourner Vishal and I had no clue where it lay exactly. Hence began the wild goose chase in a new city, amidst unknown people, with extremely limited scope for communication. We wandered around and went into a local grocery and met an elderly woman, who greeted us with a smile. She talked in Chinese, we talked in English. She didn't understand us, nor did we grasp her words. She at last pointed in one direction and we took her advice. And there were other guiding agents on the way, before finally a security guard, realizing our plight, escorted us to the eatery. This gave us a sense of confidence. It was with this newly found courage that we encountered China, passports in pockets, camera in hand and a desire to explore more.

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Our 'guide' at the grocery store

In the following days, I realized that in a rather twisted fashion my inability to speak Chinese had proved to be an advantage, allowing me to connect with the locals on the streets at a more intimate level. I say so, because I conversed not in a conventional language, but with one that relied on gestures and was enlivened by the profuse excitement of uncertainties – uncertainties that silently lay before us at each corner and crossing, as we kept wondering what act we would have to perform next! After entertaining the shopkeepers of the shops we went into and cheering up the small crowds, which naturally grew around us, often we were left wondering whether the right message was sent across. I am sure a lot was missed or misunderstood in these communications, but what little was understood was pure. The language that is expressed through gestures, through smiling faces and twinkling eyes, cannot deceive like the words of the mouth, which can pose and pretend.

When we made plans to meet one of the volunteers for some sightseeing, she asked whether we wanted to follow the "Chinese time" or the "Indian time"...

The Chinese people I encountered were as warm and welcoming as any other. They were particularly considerate of what they called "Indian culture". But when the Chinese volunteers employed the term "Indian culture", it wasn't used in its traditional sense to denote the diverse artistic and literary achievements of India, but to teasingly refer to our inalienable habit of being late for every appointment, be it lunch or a lecture on Indo-China relations. When we made plans to meet one of the volunteers for some sightseeing, she asked whether we wanted to follow the "Chinese time" or the "Indian time", and we all broke into friendly laughter. At another such instance, Leo, a second volunteer, impatiently kept snapping his fingers while waiting for us at the hotel. He said unequivocally how being late was an integral part of the "Indian culture". I kept thinking about it. Leo was right. Indians, most of whom rely on a single word for yesterday and tomorrow, are indeed bad time-keepers. The Indian poet A. K. Ramanujan had contested the Western conception of "clock-time" with the idea of the "Indian Village Time", which he believed resided "anywhere between a few decades ago and the medieval centuries."

This tends to show that Gandhi's proclamation at the beginning of the 20th century, "The soul of India lives in its villages", remains a true statement as exemplified by us – those who visited Kunming and were unable to shed off the bucolic notions of an immemorial time, too naive perhaps to grasp the "capital value" of ticking clocks.

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