Friday, October 27, 2006

Indians and American politics

I was in my network class last Monday where the professor, an Indian, was teaching us about a paradox in network theory. So he goes, "This example is little counter-intuitive and some of you may not be able to grasp it immediately. Can someone give me more examples like this?", when a student, an American, blurted out, "The war in Iraq!". There was uncomfortable silence for a second before the class started laughing and professor with us. But we see could the discomfort in his face. He paused for a second neither asserting nor denying the statement before continuing, "Let me give you a more non-political example."

While the remark made by the student was definitely not on a serious tone, the professors refusal to even acknowledge the comment got me thinking - why are Indians so uncomfortable talking in public about American politics? This was not a one time incident. In my previous job, the manual which we had to go through before coming to the client location says - while you may talk with the client regarding non-business related topics refrain from talking to them about politics and other such sensitive issues.

Before coming to the United States, this made a lot of sense to me. Clearly, you don't want to jeapordize the relationship with the client by expressing an opinion which may hurt them. But it is after coming here that I've realized how much Americans value the idea of free speech. I had a manager whose step-son is currently serving in Iraq. She once told me, "Jared was always brave. After 9/11 he thought of nothing but signing up with the Marines. Though I respect what he does, I don't believe in this war (in Iraq) and what the President (Bush) is doing to this country." I just nodded and said nothing.

There have been other cases too. The person who used to sit next to my cubicle at my old job is a liberal and is always talking about hot button issues and how the Republicans are ruining this country. He and his neighbor, a Briton, were always having heated debates on American politics. While I and a few other Indians listened in sometimes, we never contributed our thoughts to these discussions.

Some may think that the reason behind this is that Indians don't know much about American politics, but that again is clearly not the case. I listen to talk radio all the time and know others who do too. I know as well anybody else the current candidates for the Massachusetts governor race and what these candidates stand for. We all are updated on a daily basis on the war in Iraq and can't escape it as it shows up on every television news channel. We know all about the scandals that happen in Washington and what the opinion polls say about who is going win the mid-term elections in November. But why is it that we are afraid to talk in public about what we know?

I know that many Indians do talk amongst themselves about American politics. I was at my cousin's place for lunch once when we had a very lively discussion about the Massachusetts governor race and the candidates. But we don't show the same level of enthusiasm while talking about this with Americans. Why? On the contrary, Americans are very interested about knowing how the Indian political system works, the parties, about India-Pakistan relations and such. They even speak out their mind on these things if they have any knowledge of it. After the recent bombings in Mumbai, everyone in my office came to me and others from Mumbai to talk about it and try to understand (from our limited knowledge) how it happened and who might be behind it.

My neighbor (whom I mentioned before) from my old job always used to tell me that it is important that I express my opinion about issues here as what happens affects me directly as I live here. I am not a citizen but I do pay taxes to both the state and federal government - and a lot of it :(. And the US Constitution guarantees me the freedom of speech and expression.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you that we think not twice but maybe 200 times before voicing our thoughts on American politics. I guess, it would be due the idea that no matter how many years we spend here, US is always a foriegn nation and the furthest we would poke our nose is our neighbors' life ;). But americans don't exercise such discretion and that explains over 90% of the economic sanctions around the world.