Sunday, 29 May 2011

Busy being an "Ambassador for America"

            Today, I had the privilege of accompanying Dr. Jolly to the “Mathematics Olympiad Valedictory Function” which involved traveling to the neighboring state Nodia to attend the host University.  Nodia is considered more of the suburbs so we crossed the river and I enjoyed seeing cows and people on elephants on the side of the road.  The Amity University campus was beautiful- I guess it was one of the first private universities in India and they have spared no expense.  I didn’t get to go inside most of their facilities but when we entered the building for the ceremony, we proceeded through hanging flowers, then they greeted us by name, throwing flower petals and placing a red tikka (I think that’s the right word) to denote honored guest.  At every door, an Indian Army officer with a beautiful dog stood straight and tall.  We were ushered into a fancy side room with the other guests of honor and waited on with tea and appetizers as we awaited the start of the ceremony.
            The ceremony itself was quite long- it opened with an invocation by a choir of girls who grew up the in the slums.  These girls came to the University after hours to take classes, learn hygiene and the choir has proved to be an empowering experience- its alumni includes doctors and engineers!  All the guests of honor were acknowledged and presented a potted plant.  They even acknowledged me with a potted plant in front of the whole auditorium!  Almost every speech started with an extensive greeting of all the fellow guests, and boy, do they love thanking people!  I felt like I was at the Academy Awards when the chairperson started graciously thanking each faculty member, each collaborating school, each administrator, her husband, her mother… In general, a very enthusiastic but chaotic ceremony- Indians haven’t discovered the “silent mode” on their cell phones so some people on stage were answering their phones during the talks, little kids were running all over the stage, gifts were constantly being presented to the late arrivals…
            The speeches were definitely interesting- once again, praising India’s initial strides in mathematics and astronomy (“invention” of zero, determination of Pi up to 8 decimals in the 6th century, calendar), focusing on the interdisciplinary needs of innovative research and empowering these students to become worldwide leaders in math and science.  The president of the Indian National Science Academy mentioned how Obama is worried about India and China outperforming the US in math and science, but he emphasized that India has to focus on constantly improving itself.  These Indian students are so self-motivated, disciplined and hardworking that there’s no wonder American students have trouble keeping up.  Many Americans have a sense of self-entitlement that impedes the unyielding ambition of this upwardly mobile society.
            After the ceremony, we met in the faculty lounge and I loved talking to all these impressive people.  Dr. SV Eswaran, who gave the talk at the workshop yesterday didn’t recognize me in my kurta (Dr. Jolly didn’t recognize me when she saw me at first- she called it my Indian samsara “rebirth”) but once he did, he enthusiastically introduced me to his wife who said she loves cooking for hungry people!  I talked to the President of the Indian National Science Academy, this brilliant teeny, old math professor who is one of the most precious human beings I have ever met, lots of principals from these high-performing schools and many administrators from Amity University. 
My "Indian samsara"
            On the ride back, I heard more about the chaos preceding the Commonwealth games.  Dr. Jolly says between the inefficiency of a democracy and the corruption in the country, mobilizing the city was an incredible mess until about two weeks before the games.  One interesting point she made was that when England ruled India, they trained the people to be servants in the shadows. She said India still struggles with making the average worker think creatively and work hard instead of just following orders. Another one of the next big steps for the country is finding ways to ensure quality control.  With many illiterate and untrained workers in Construction and other entry-level jobs, there’s no way to standardize training in many of these professions.  That’s why she says India will never be able to surpass China, who can quiet the opposition and get things done quickly.
            So that little excursion turned out to be an all-day affair but an interesting one, for sure.  Tomorrow’s the press conference about college admissions. 
            All the best!