Saturday, June 19, 2010

My Dinner with India

At our conference banquet in Iceland (about which I will write more in later posts) I had a lengthy conversation with an Indian student at a university in Taiwan.  I will call him R.  After discussing our respective research, we turned to personal matters.

“What made you decide to pursue your education in Taiwan?”

“There was better opportunity in Taiwan.  Indian university admissions are intensely political, and the schools enforce admissions quotas against members of the higher castes.  For instance, in order to gain admission to a university a Brahmin would have to score in the 99.9th percentile on [standardized tests], whereas a lower caste Indian could gain admission at only the 70th percentile.  So attending school in India would have been very difficult for me.”

“That sounds . . . familiar,” I observed.  “So how easy has it been for you to integrate, um, socially into a Chinese society?”

R smiled.  “Yeah, I can get dates without much problem.”  [I believe this.  R was very affable and outgoing.]  But I’m very philosophical about romantic relationships.  I believe that if you ask a woman why she loves you, and she replies, ‘I love you because . . . ,’ then it’s not really love.  True love is without reason.

“But my experience has been that Chinese culture is much more tolerant of outsiders than American culture.  I have much more freedom to express my individuality than I would have in the U.S.”

“I’m surprised to hear you say that,” I said.  “The usual cliché is that Anglo Saxon culture is much more devoted, if not to individuality, then to individualism, than Confucian culture, which is perceived to be much more collectivist.”

“Ah ha!” R replied.  “That is only true internally.  Yes, Anglo Saxon culture does permit much more individuality among its own members than Chinese society does among its members.  But it also expects much more conformity of outsiders than does Chinese culture.”

I then asked him a history question.  My daughter’s history curriculum covered India’s post-independence history, which it distilled into two events:  the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and the Bhopal chemical leak.  In the context of fisking this chapter (about which I will write more in a future post), I had done some independent research into this latter topic.

“I have two questions,” I began.  “You may be aware that activists who still concern themselves with this matter 25 years later point to, among other things, an act passed by the Indian Congress a few months after the accident that gave the Indian government sole authority to sue UCIL for damages.  The activists complain that his effectively prevented individuals harmed by the poison gas leak to sue Union Carbide.  My question is:  why did the Indian Congress do this?”

“The reasoning was that the typical Indian was too poor and uneducated to make effective use of the courts.  The government believed it was doing them a favor by undertaking litigation on their behalf.”

“Second question,” I continued, “Here’s an event I’m struggling to understand.  After the disaster, for no-doubt a mix of reasons, Union Carbide made a donation to the University of Arizona for the purpose of building a vocational school in Bhopal, although some sources call it a rehabilitation center.  UA did, in fact, build the school and begin classes there, but when the Indian government learned that the school was built with with Union Carbide money, it seized the property, closed the school, and bulldozed it to the ground.  None of the sources explain why they did this, but the insinuation is that it was simply raw hatred of Union Carbide and all its works.”

“I was not aware of this specific story,” R replied, “but it doesn’t surprise me.  Given the scope of the disaster, the popular anger at Union Carbide was intense, and the lower-classes of Indian society, to whom politicians usually appeal, are given over to just these kinds of passions.”

“What did you think of the movie Slumdog Millionaire?”

“It’s a much more accurate portrayal of Indian society 20 – 30 years ago than it is today.”

The discussion turned for a while to the general indifference to education among the majority of Indians.  Somebody told a story they had seen on the news about an Indian woman who had 17 children, yet her income was only $100 per month.

“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” I asked him.

“One sister,” R replied.

“Okay, so on the one hand, there is this “uneducated” [I really didn’t want to get into a discussion of IQ] woman with 17 children, none of whom go to school.  On the other there is your family, educated professionals with two children, and you left.  Can you see where this is heading?  What does this mean for India’s future in the medium run?”

“Nothing good,” he admitted.


Peter said...

Does India's caste system have a breakdown along genetic groupings, or is it a social class issue, as though today's income distribution was ossified and handed down as a class hierarchy?

Φ said...

Peter: this is a question better put to Razib Khan, but my understanding is that the castes are heavily endogamous and have been for some time. So my expectation is that now they constitute genetic groupings.

Anonymous said...

When I was working at that large software company in the Pacific Northwest, I worked with a fair number of Indians. No big surprise of Indians that have the intelligence and resources to make it to the US, but they were of the higher caste. Woah nelly, you should have heard them talk about the Indian variant of affirmative action. A more forceful condemnation I don't know I have ever heard. On the other hand, it sounds like it's a lot more drastic over there than over here.