Chief Guest at the Republic Day of India

Good morning. It is truly an honor for me to be here this morning to share with you in the celebration of this significant day in the history of your country. Today, as you know, we celebrate the beginning of India's journey as a free democratic country with the enactment of its constitution in 1950. This is more than a celebration of democracy, independence, and its constitution. It is also a celebration of the diversity and richness of the culture of India. Today there is a great parade in New Delhi, and as one of my students put it "The parade is televised live all over the country in the morning, and its a visual spectacle." My student said that "It was probably the most-watched event on Indian television, until they started telecasting Bollywood award ceremonies." Unfortunately, you are stuck here in Blacksburg with me as a speaker.

I have to admit that I was paralyzed with fear wondering "what do I say?" See not only have I never been to India, but, as you know, I am the product of the American media. I have been fed this crazy view of India. Abu in the Simpsons? Dr. Rajesh Koothrappali in The Big Bang Theory? Can you imagine if I believed those stereotypes? Luckily, I know that India and its people are nothing like those caricatures. I have supervised many graduate students from India. I can easily say that the students from India are among the best students I have met (never mind that they outnumber all other students 2 to 1).

If I believed those 1-dimensional stereotypes, I would miss the good nature and friendliness that I see in the graduate Indian students that have worked with me. I had a student who continuously offered help, even when it wasn't his responsibility to help. When he started answering my requests with "What can brown do for you?" I was a little scared. But his good nature and support for his colleagues was second to none.

If I believed the stereotypes, I would miss the fact that many of the Indian students that I have worked with, have different religions and faiths. I worked with a Muslim student, some catholic ones, others that I don't know their faiths, and one that partied a bit too much (never asked him what his religion was, but I am sure it had to do with local bars). What has impressed me was how well all of these students got along. They cherished their differences, respected the fact that they had different religions and came from different parts of a large country as if it was just their choice of clothing. They celebrated their common nationality and common values as more important than their differences. In this world, where we go to war for religious differences, we have a lot to learn from a country that accepts and welcomes different faiths. Even language differences, something that is natural for your country, is so strange here in the US where even having a bit of accent makes you stand out.

Another thing I have learn about India from my students, is your love for Cricket. We love Baseball. I know also to avoid that topic of conversation, particularly here where I am outnumbered. Last summer, I took two of my Indian students to a baseball game for the Salem Red Sox. We had a great time. One of them kept asking me questions about baseball, question that to me were so obvious and to him were so strange and new. Needless to say, I failed to convert them over to the baseball side. Since then I have been meaning to learn more about this grand sport where apparently a game can last several days and yet players take a break for tea?

But the thing that I appreciate the most of my Indian students is the principles of community that you embody. I have noticed that my students from India are more tolerant when I say "I have to go home because one of my kids is sick." Instead of rolling their eyes, they often ask if they can help. They want to bring me food at home so my wife and I don't have to cook and can take care of the kids. Would you believe that I wrote a paper for a conference co-authored with one of my Indian phd students sitting at a softball game for my daughter?

It is this notion of community that I find the most fascinating about your country. People care about each other more than they care about themselves. They value family, neighbors, the community more than their personal benefit. These are values that come directly from the teachings of Gandhi, values that the students today still embrace and exemplify. As you heard in the introduction, I am associate dean for diversity initiatives at the graduate school. I try to bring inclusion and diversity into the mentality of graduate students in a society that is not very diverse and that doesn't have a rich history of inclusivity. I find working with students from India a very refreshing part of my day. I feel that they make my day easy because you living examples of diversity and inclusion.

Finally, I want to tell you a fact that is being used to scare people in the US. It goes like this. There are more honor students in China and India than students in the US. Think about it, honor students possibly mean the top 10% of the student body. Just by sheer numbers alone, 10% of all the students in Asia is possibly a number larger than all students in the US. What does that mean? It means that India could have a larger impact on the future of the world than other western nations that are "smaller." One billion people. People are thinking "resistance is futile, we will be assimilated". But you know what, given what I have seen of your culture, I am ready to be part of the collective. Sign me up.

It is an honor to be the Chief Guest at the India Republic Day celebrations. Thank you for inviting me and enjoy your day.

Speech given at the India Republic Day Celebrations, Canwell International Center , January 26, 2010.

Posted on 01/26/2010

 

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