[Crossing Cultures: Indians in China] Shiv Kumar: In for the Long Haul

“Do your homework, and come prepared with patience. Come to China with an open mind. Suspend your biases, and don’t be judgmental. It’s going to be a different story for every individual. China is a big, beautiful country with lots of opportunities.”
by Nick Lanigan
For Shiv Kumar, China has become a second home.

“I came to China on a one-year contract as an English lecturer,” says Shiv Kumar, from the Indian state of Haryana, “and that was fifteen years ago – and counting.”

Shiv’s story is one that would sound familiar to many long-term expats in China. After an initial period of teaching in Daqing, a prefecture-level city in northeastern China’s Heilongjiang Province, he grew tired of the region’s long, cold winters and made the move to Beijing, where he now works as a corporate trainer. It’s a job that has given him ample room to reflect on the differences between India and China. “For companies entering the Indian market,” he explains, “the main content of my training is cross-cultural…. How to behave in social settings, how to do business in India, how to interact with Indians in the corporate world.”

To give an example, Shiv says that the way emotions are expressed in the two countries can be very different. “In India, we don’t have this concept of ‘face’ that Chinese people have,” he explains. “We have a sense of prestige, of course, but that’s different. So in meetings, Indians tend to be very expressive, whereas Chinese people express themselves in a very controlled fashion. There’s a different kind of demeanor.”

Shiv is also quick to point out that when it comes to India and China, there are no universal truths. “China is just too big to describe,” he says. “I have to admit that before I came here, even my own knowledge about the country was very limited. I didn’t know much about it. I’m still exploring it, and it keeps changing, too. The same applies to India – I’m from the north, and I’ve traveled around, but I don’t understand the whole of India. There are some southern states I’ve never been to, with languages and cultures that are completely different from mine, even though we’re one country.”

As two of the largest markets in the world, successful communication between China and India is crucial. But even when they try to do business together, Shiv says, the representatives of firms in the two countries often struggle to understand what the other is saying. “One of the biggest issues in business dealings is that both Indians and Chinese tend to be indirect. They each have a context behind what they’re saying, but no one says exactly what they mean, so a lot of what goes on is lost in translation. People on both sides find that frustrating, but we need to realize that actually it’s a similarity between us.”

Turning differences into similarities is something Shiv is accustomed to in his personal life, as well as professionally. When he and his wife, who is Chinese, have disagreements about how to raise or educate their children, they always manage to find common ground. “Indians and Chinese are both family-oriented people,” Shiv explains. “We may have different mindsets, but we are both very closely bonded with our family members.”

Shiv’s family is proof that Chinese and Indian cultures can co-exist in harmony. They celebrate the festivals of both countries, from Spring Festival to Diwali, and alternate between Chinese and Indian cooking at home. The children speak both Chinese and English, and Shiv is hoping to introduce Hindi as well. But despite all the values the two countries share, he admits that meeting strangers in China can be a reminder of how many misconceptions still exist. “People in China can be very curious about me,” Shiv says. “Sometimes, they think I am from Xinjiang, in the west of China. When I say I’m from India, they ask me if I can sing and dance, they ask me about Bollywood and yoga, and they all know that India has the second biggest population – after China, of course. They ask me if I eat curry. I had never even used the word ‘curry’ before I left India!”

It’s clear that more needs to be done to help foster understanding between the two peoples. But how can ordinary people in India and China learn more about each other? According to Shiv, tourism should be promoted on both sides. Millions of Chinese and Indian tourists travel abroad, he notes, but there is not enough travel between the two. However, he also thinks that might be about to change. “I’m very happy about the current leadership on both sides,” he explains. “It’s a very good combination. I’m very hopeful that things will get better soon. Respect, relationships and trust are all things that can only be achieved through human interaction.”  

So with that in mind, what is Shiv’s one tip for any Indian planning to visit China? “Do your homework, and come prepared with patience. Come to China with an open mind. Suspend your biases, and don’t be judgmental. It’s going to be a different story for every individual. China is a big, beautiful country with lots of opportunities.”

And if you’re anything like Shiv, you might just end up staying longer than you expect.

Photograph courtesy of Shiv Kumar.