Ni hao, Jiabao

Published: December 15, 2010
The writer’s first book, Looking For America, has been published by Harper Collins India. He is a former editor of the Hindustan Times’ Mumbai edition

The writer’s first book, Looking For America, has been published by Harper Collins India. He is a former editor of the Hindustan Times’ Mumbai edition

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in India on Wednesday. His visit had a number of standard consequences: road blockades, Tibetan protests and so on. But the first item on his itinerary caught my eye. It was a visit to Tagore International School, founded in 1964 by Dr H Sen (a somewhat Chinese-sounding name, but really one that belongs to a Bengali; no relative of mine). The school is named after the great poet Rabindranath Tagore.

Wen’s visit to the school follows a significant addition to the 2011 school syllabus by the Central Board of Secondary Education in India: the introduction of Mandarin for students from class six onwards.

It was reported that students at the school were learning how to say ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’ to the Chinese premier. He will leave for Islamabad on Friday but Mandarin, I think, is here to stay. And this is a very good thing in a country where people believe that mainland China is a restaurant, rather than a geopolitical entity.

As a native of Calcutta, I have probably had more exposure to the Chinese community in India than people from other cities. Our abysmal ignorance about Chinese migrants (they came in waves starting in the late 18th century to work at the Calcutta port), however, remains. The British thought they were excellent workers and especially fine carpenters and leather craftsmen. The restaurant, laundry and beauty parlour cliches came much later.

The line of shops selling handcrafted shoes still exists on Bentinck Street, with names (Ah Thoo, A Thin, you get the drift) that never cease to amuse the average Calcuttan; a man who firmly believes that ‘hakka’ is a type of street noodles, rather than a community.

Sadly, Tangra, the great hub of homestyle Calcutta Chinese food, has transformed into a pork-free zone, because most establishments are now run by regular Calcutta businessmen who prefer paneer and peanuts. This is a shame. Chinese food without pork is like biryani without gosht. It was reported that even Wen, the premier, checks the price of pork every day to gauge popular mood.

In Calcutta, the integration is so complete that the Chinese even have their own Kali temple. But this has come at a price: the loss of language. We’ve forgotten, for instance, that ‘chini’, the Bengali word for sugar, has its roots in China.

That’s changing now: economics has a way of working these things out. There are scores of private classes being offered all over India, offering various levels of Chinese language training. From Karnataka to Calcutta, there are Chinese courses available at 250 Indian rupees a session onwards.

One example: The School of Chinese Language in Calcutta — a non-profit institution that was started in 2008 and has already produced 200 graduates. This school was inaugurated by the Chinese Consul General Mao Siwei in 2008. He said: “I believe the world has enough space for China and India… to develop together… I believe that an increasing number of young Indians will learn the Chinese language.”

They will. And I hope they do, because I’ve read too many reports in the past which have the phrase “the mandarins of South Block” (or wherever) by writers who don’t have a clue as to where that term comes from (it is a relative of the Hindi word ‘mantri’).

It has finally dawned on Indians that they had better learn the language the fastest growing economy in the world speaks. Mandarin will now mean something much more than a manipulative bureaucrat. It will mean a passport to a huge marketplace.

It will also mean that issues such as, say, the stapled visas for residents of Jammu and Kashmir (only the Chinese have the ingenuity to come up with this kind of stuff!) or the border disputes all over the north and even the much trickier strategic ties with Pakistan will be treated as irritants, rather than the real thing — which is business.

It doesn’t take an ‘electric brain’ (a computer, in mandarin) to figure that one out. It just requires common sense.

And guess who had a bit of that? Rabindranath Tagore’s Vishwabharati University, in Shantiniketan, near Calcutta has been offering Chinese language courses since 1932.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 16th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (18)

  • Hamad
    Dec 16, 2010 - 1:03AM

    Two countries which fought a war few decades ago want to communicate in each others language with classes starting at Rs. 250 Only. VOW. World is certainly going to become a very peaceful place if this attitude continues and catches up on others too.

    But heres the question which comes up after reading this. If India’s plan to remove the issue of the stapled visas, disputed territory in Jammu & Kashmir and minimizing the importance of PAK-China friendship fails with this ‘learning Mandarin for the India’s greater good regime’ does it mean no more Mandarin after grade 6 and back to the old war ways?

    just a question.Recommend

  • realMuslim
    Dec 16, 2010 - 1:24AM

    Dont worry we are also teaching an important foreign language in pakistan, Arabic. This helps pakistani student become hafiz-e-Quran in its original language (not urdu because things get “lost in traslation”..u know). Our young generation has eyes on higher things..mandrin is just an orange for us.Recommend

  • Dec 16, 2010 - 2:28AM

    indians and pakistanis who can speak english, mandarin and hindi/urdu will be very highly regarded in the next few decades. Recommend

  • Kannan
    Dec 16, 2010 - 3:02AM

    Its not about “removing”.It is about “transcending”&”rising above” the “irritants” which economic interdependency of India and China eventually will overcome.For example,Until May 8, 2008 Britain had a blasphemy law,but never had anybody convicted or prosecuted after 1977 even though seemingly blasphemous materials against Church of England were still produced or written in the interim.That is an example of “transcending” if you know what I mean.(disclaimer: if there is holes in the facts used in the illustration..plz take only the essence of the argument in spirit)Recommend

  • Raqib Ali
    Dec 16, 2010 - 3:46AM

    As a lover of language, I am delighted to see that Indians are learning Chinese. This also means in near future some of my Indian friends will be speaking Chinese and I won’t have to pay a Chinese lady (teacher) in London who charges me £25 an hour for chinese lesson and after a year I am only at intermediate leve!! It may take two more years for me to make it up to University level and that at the cost of nearly £3,000 pounds a year!!!”

    Language is always helpful in business but I doubt it will bring any benefits for the Indians. Chinese are shrewd business people and they know only one language: PROFITS IN THEIR POCKETS. It may sound ruthless, but thats the way they are. Does’t matter how much I love their culture and language, even my Chinese friends don’t teach me for free. LolzRecommend

  • Raqib Ali
    Dec 16, 2010 - 3:51AM

    @ realmuslim

    I speak 8 languages and 4 of them at Expert level. I get your ironic style but the sad reality is that we Pakistanis are memorising phrases etc but not really good at speaking. I did study Arabic & Persian in Pakistan for three years (it was compulsory from class 6 to 8) but even our teachers couldn’t speak.

    I did a 10 weeks course (just two hours every monday evening for ten weeks) at SOAS London and can speak more than many Mullahs teaching Arabic at Mansoora (sadly, I know someo of them!). And my knowledge of Arabic is just beginner.

    We need more languages in Pakistan and more at a spoken level. This is how you build relations.Recommend

  • G.Khan
    Dec 16, 2010 - 5:33AM

    Quran is not only read in Pakistan in Arabic, It is also read in Arabic language in Indian and all over the world ;from East to West and From North to South. Can anyone expect Indians to learn Mandarin when they do not even know in what language their biggest minority read Quran in their own country. Hahahahahaha.. This is Height of Ignorance.LOL ..That’s so Hilarious. !!!!!Recommend

  • realMuslim
    Dec 16, 2010 - 5:37AM

    @Raqib Ali,
    I am glad u got my sarcasm….it was in response to the “hammad” like postings.
    I got it because u seemed to be learned man and hence a gentleman. People like “hammad” is brainwashed into ” pakistan is not-india narrative”. Indians are adopting to global reality and so should we.
    People like u who know many languagesm besides arabic are few and far in between in pakistanRecommend

  • Dec 16, 2010 - 6:14AM

    Raqib bhai, here at the Association of British Muslims we have British Chinese members and would be happy to pair you guys up – free mandarin course and friendship by chinese person for free!

    (yes i know typical desi style – why buy when you can get it free :))Recommend

  • Rajat
    Dec 16, 2010 - 9:12AM

    An average middle class indian knows atleast 4 languages.. I know English, Hindi, Kashmiri(MT), bit of sanskrit and punjabi. The south indians.. I envy them, speak sometimes more than 5-6 languages Mandarin, though I’ve heard is an incredibly difficult language in written form will be amazing if it becomes popular as a third/fourth language, as one can converse with 20-25% of the population on the earth. Thinking of the trade potential without language barriers is a businessman’s dream come true. Recommend

  • Madeeha Ansari
    Dec 16, 2010 - 10:43AM

    Languages are assets, it’s true. However, this particular piece was written to fit the title – just because it sounds that lyrical!Recommend

  • Aninda Chowdhury
    Dec 16, 2010 - 1:08PM

    Dear author, as a Calcuttan I must say that the charm of tangra/topsia (china town as we often call) is no more. I think chinese restaurants in south city mall and park street offer better pork and other chinese dishes than tangra.

    With regard to learning foreign language, I would prefer to learn French or Italian rather than Mandarin.Recommend

  • Raqib Ali
    Dec 16, 2010 - 3:21PM

    If you create jobs, people will learn your language.

    My friend went to South Korea in 1994 to teach English. He says that the Pakistanis coming to Korea now learn some language before going there. Even finance ministry of Pakistan does some courses in Korean. Pakistanis newspapers are full of KLT (Korean Lanugage Test) centres in classified ads. Guessing from these ads in the last few years, I think thousands of Pakistanis would have learnt the language. Reality is that we know nothing and have nothing in common with South Korea and yet people are learning the language. Money talks! While I haven’t come across any Pakistani who went to school after independence and knows how to write Hindi.

    @ realmuslim

    don’t get upset with people. these are opinions which people write and publish with the click of a button. most of the things we write are often because of emotions and reaction to someone else’s argument. Those who go beyond these emotions are the ones that are superior beings. And such people are quite rare. we all write rubbish sometimes..Recommend

  • Raqib Ali
    Dec 16, 2010 - 3:43PM

    There are a few good things happening in Pakistan. I think our media should highlight it. Positivity encourages positive actions. In 2007, I read an article about Spanish call centres in UK Times newspaper. It’s heading was: ‘Musharraf made them rich, and not they want to get rid of him’. For me, this was a news for me that we have Spanish speaking call cnetres in Pakistan. No one has ever written about them. Recommend

  • Anoop
    Dec 16, 2010 - 9:11PM

    “Can anyone expect Indians to learn Mandarin when they do not even know in what language their biggest minority read Quran in their own country.”

    –> I’ve come to the conclusion that you have a better sense of humour than me. How I wish I could see the funny side of this.

    By the way, I, an Indian Citizen knew Quran is in Arabic.

    Also, I’d like to add Indians are naturally multi-lingual. I, for instance, know how to read,write and speak in Kannada, Hindi and English. I can clearly see my fellow countrymen learning Mandarin easily than others.Recommend

  • Bil Al Rashid
    Dec 17, 2010 - 2:53PM

    Indians are quick at learning languages.But language doesn’t matter.Look at s.korea or Japan.they preserve their language,culture,but technolocally fit enough…..Recommend

  • sandy
    Dec 17, 2010 - 10:48PM

    There are 26 official languages in India. It is common for indians to know atleast 2 more languages other than English and hindi. Sanskrit as a language is compulsary for us till class 7. Indians are inherently multilingual, and many schools these days offer foreign languages as curriculum.

    @Bil – 21st century works on business and economy, and language is just a tool. Mandarin is a welcome addition as students in China are increasingly learning Hindi, keeping in mind that these 2 countries will rule the world in 21st century. Its a pure economic choice. Search youtube and google, and you will see how fast chinese are learning hindi. Recommend

  • Sundee
    Dec 19, 2010 - 4:13AM

    Its just mere policy India wants to show in the world that India and Indians are not lacking behind to accept others and respect others. Indian are haing so many laguage including chinese as many chinese people live parmanently in India.

    As per as India goes, its already achieved the respect of worlds rite from Africa to Europe and America. If I vist Eu people, they just don’t forget the talent of Indians and the diveresed and rich culture of India. Its all about some time that world falls the way India thinks.

    Chinese are more conscious about the fact that they are lossing in many fronts to India. China has only global corporate presence with low skilled labours but India has already proved the world that they have brains and that too the best in the world!Recommend

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