大开眼界- Three Weeks into Research

With the changing dynamics between India and China, I believe it is important that the bond between these two countries must be properly analysed. While it is mostly that the country’s government takes actions in multiple areas, it is also important to see how the people view this bond. India and China’s relationship has often been called one that ‘goes hand in hand,’ yet is viewed suspiciously by both countries. After a couple of weeks in China, I have tried to understand why China and India aren’t closer. As a person who was born in India, and has visited multiple parts of that country, I was surprised to see how similar China and India are. Both countries are rooted in history and tradition and the subtle similarities I have experienced in China, often remind me of my motherland. By interviewing students, I believe I can understand the Chinese viewpoint of India and Indians. About 20 million students study higher education in China and some of the best come to Tsinghua University. My field site is the Zijingyuan cafeteria at Tsinghua which is the largest cafeteria on campus. Over 500 students come here for lunch and dinner, and I too, take part in this routine grab for food.  Why interview students? Students in China are open and still learning about the world and they will one day be experts and leaders in their respective fields. Moreover, the students come from a wide variety of backgrounds- some from remote villages and others from well-to-do families. Each student has a different perspective and their responses to my interview questions will give a well-rounded view of the many views present in China.

Tsinghua University is known for producing Presidents and lawyers who eventually lead China.

Tsinghua University is known for producing Presidents and lawyers who eventually lead China.

On the second floor of Zijingyuan Cafeteria is a slightly elderly woman in her late 40’s who serves me my food almost everyday. She wears the same clothes: white hat and shirt, pink apron, and a mask. She serves the dishes with tofu and vegetables and onions sauteed in sauce. Because I am vegetarian, these are one of my favorite foods available to me. I go to the counter, point to the foods and say, “这个还有这个。米饭。” She would tell me it was 1.25 kuai, and I would nod, pay for it, and leave. The first time I went, she barely noticed me. The staff at the cafeteria are fast and quick in serving students and they are always in a rush. But as I started to come more often, she started to respond differently to me. First she smiled at me, bowed her head, and then eventually said hello and goodbye. Yesterday, she scooped me some extra rice and didn’t charge me for it.

The only little explanation I can offer is that, when you see a familiar face, you want to know that person. Why is this person getting the same food everyday? Does she even like it? What I find significant in this interaction is that, the cafeteria lady didn’t respond to other students getting food like she did to me. Maybe she doesn’t recognize them? I feel that my unique features as a foreigner make me stand out and her smile signify familiarity. Because she and I are separated by the food and glass, I wonder how she would react if we were closer. Today, she asked me why I came to the same place everyday. I told her I was vegetarian (素) and I liked the food here. She nodded and giggled in response. She does sometimes bow her head when she sees me, which might indicate signs of showing respect and I also bow my head to show the same. I had done a little reading on Chinese customs and gestures and it helped me analyze her behavior. One thing I have yet to figure out is her opinion of India/Indians.

From the past couple weeks, some people can recognize that I am from India, but some can’t. For example, my tour guide to Shanxi province asked me which part of Africa I was from, and I had to explain to him that I was from India. He seemed confused- I don’t know if he had ever heard about this country and asked me multiple times throughout the trip. On the other hand, a souvenir seller on the Great Wall of China, asked me if I was Indian right away. He asked, “你是印度人,对吗?” I was a little surprised. I have slowly started to realize, that this is all relative to the kind of exposure a person has. The tour guide to Shanxi spoke English and was well-read on his tourist sites versus the souvenir seller was a old man who didn’t know any English, but who probably was exposed to hordes of tourists daily.

Indian Restaurant in Wudaokou

Indian Restaurant in Wudaokou

Previously, I had visited an Indian restaurant in Wudaokou and after observing the environment there, I saw a different view of Indians in China. Here, the Indian culture was displayed proudly and the Chinese staff working there seemed appreciative of the environment. The staff new the names of the dishes very well and the Indian manager even spoke Chinese. It was the perfect mix of the two cultures in harmony. While doing more research, I read this article in which a Chinese writer is interviewed about her view of India. She says that India is often viewed as an enemy and that the Chinese think Indians are trying to occupy Tibet. On the contrary, China recently crossed borders into India and caused a commotion. The writer also mentions that the educated Chinese are very interested in India and Indian culture.

In another piece of media, Prof. Jia Haitao from Jinan University recently gave a talk in India about the perception of India/Indians in China. He argues that India has a ‘sketchy’ image in China and these are due to misconceptions of Indians in media. He goes on to make many points about border dispute, business investment, dam construction, and many more. From the interviews I have so far conducted, I am seeing certain topics mentioned more than others and the different views students here at Tsinghua hold about India and Indians. But, only after sufficient interviews have been conducted can I surely say what the general perception is.

“IETF 79 – China Guidelines.” Chinese Culture & Etiquette Overview. IEFT, n.d. Web. 02 July 2013.

Jia, Haitao. “Chinese Perceptions of India and Its Rise.” Lecture. India, Chennai. 5 Mar. 2013. IIT Madras China Studies Centre. IITM. Web.

Mande, Abhishek. “‘In China, Indians Are Perceived as Enemies'” Rediff. N.p., 4 Feb. 2011. Web. 02 July 2013.