Business senior Varun Chopra landed in New Delhi, India, on Dec. 13, the same day as the attack on India”s parliament attributed to Islamic militants from Pakistan.
The event has been the flashpoint in the most recent buildup of tensions between Pakistan and India. Both countries have amassed troops at the line of control in the disputed Kashmir region. Tensions have eased since the attack, but the threat of war is very real.
The idea of an act of war on domestic soil is unfathomable to most Americans, even following the Sept. 11 attacks. For international students like Chopra, war is a reality they face anytime they return home.
“Everything was moved to the border and the Taj Mahal was also covered (with a camouflage tarp to prevent air attacks). I went to Rajisthan with my family for New Year”s, and many of the roads were blocked because of military movement. It”s something I cannot do anything about, I guess,” said Chopra, who returns to New Delhi every summer and holiday break.
“Most of my family is in India. Both of my roommates are from Delhi as well, and we chat about what is going on. If there is a full-scale war, we would not be able to go into the countries,” he said. “We are very anxious about our families, and we have our fingers crossed all the time.”
There are 540 Indian students on campus (122 undergrads and 418 graduate students), according to the International Center.
From the other side of the border, there are 36 students (22 undergrads, 14 graduate students). One of these Pakistani students is LSA senior Junaid Iqbal.
Iqbal returned home to Karachi, the country”s largest city and a port on the Arabian Sea, for winter break. “When I was back there, the Indian parliament thing had already occurred and there was this one night when everyone was discussing that,” Iqbal said. “That was the night when everyone thought that war would be inevitable. Everyone thought, “We don”t know if we”ll wake up tomorrow.” The only war now that can happen between India and Pakistan would be nuclear war. (Pakistan is) not the richest country in the world, and they cannot sustain conventional warfare.”
Chopra is not as pessimistic.
“I”m pretty sure my country won”t bomb and I”m pretty sure Pakistan won”t either it is the end, it can affect mankind for centuries,” Chopra said.
But whatever the chance of nuclear war a possibility after both countries detonated weapons in 1998 living in the nuclear shadow is still a daunting proposition. It is a threat not felt in the United States since before the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
“It worries me all the time, especially when tensions get escalated. Whatever happens, the worst case scenario is that it”s going to take a few minutes and everyone will be executed, and its scary not being with your parents,” Iqbal said. “My parents” response always is “Well, life goes on, what are you going to do? Hopefully it will get better.” They are not as scared of it.”
LSA senior Ronny Luhur, one of 97 Indonesian students on campus (80 undergraduates, 17 graduate students), said that things in Indonesia, where riots and coups have highlighted social unrest during the past few years, are not necessarily that different from some situations in the United States.
“There are a lot of similar things in the states you think about Columbine two years ago, or the 15-year-old kid who flew a plane into (a Tampa, Fla., skyscraper) was American,” said Luhur, who lives in Jakarta. “A lot of the older community in Detroit can still remember times when there were just riots. College students definitely have a very different view.”
Although the political climates in Ann Arbor and Asia are all but incomparable, sometimes it is the more subtle differences that international students find hard to adjust to.
“The first year or two it was little difficult to adjust. As time goes by, you have a social circle. You make friends and miss it less,” Chopra said, adding that living with other students from New Delhi has made things easier and that other students have been accommodating. “It”s somewhat like being at home, I can talk to them in Hindi it”s kind of like being at home.
“My freshman year I lived in Couzens, and that was a beautiful experience, I learned about Nintendo 64 and American culture. There are times when I do feel like I should be at home, but I enjoy being in the United States also. Times when I am really missing home, I just pick up the phone and call.”
“When you”re there you are with family. Life (in the United States) is centered around oneself, and back there life is controlled by many different factors,” Iqbal said. “People still live in joint family systems, and when you say “family” over there, you don”t just mean your parents, you mean your grandparents and your aunts and uncles and cousins.”
Iqbal said there are some aspects of life in Pakistan taken for granted in the United States.
“You don”t know when the water is going to run out, or when the power is going to go out. The realities of life over there are somehow very different. That is the beauty of it, that is the reality of life. Over here you have complete control over what you are doing, it”s very different life over there,” he said.
“There”s a lot of stratification in society. You get to see a lot of differences between the wealthy and the poor are below the poverty line. The middle class is growing, and that is the strength of any society,” Iqbal added.
“You see that government offices are better organized. Every time I used to go back there before, even for something as simple as getting a drivers license made, you had to bribe someone or use someone”s influence. This time when I went, it was the first time I saw single-file lines in a government office. You couldn”t break traffic lights anymore, a cop will start following you.”
Conversely, there are things Chopra takes for granted in India that do not happen here.
“I end up making my bed, and I end up doing my dishes back home labor is cheap, and you have drivers who drive you for someone like me, you”re not used to it,” Chopra said.
Students from the region share a common bond.
“Sometimes its so difficult to me to figure out who is from Pakistan or India, basically we have the same skin color, eating habits, and the languages are similar. Even though some of my friends are Pakistani, I don”t even think about it when I”m sitting across the table from them,” Chopra said.
“It was very hard to adjust, especially the first semester, being away from family and friends, food, the weather was a very tough one. Life is so different,” Iqbal said. “I joined AISEC (an international organization for students). … Being a part of that organization and working for cultural understanding made it a lot more exciting for me.”
But living in a country where most people have a limited knowledge of international affairs can be trying.
“In general, papers have covered the India-Pakistan dispute, and my friends do ask me how family is. But they don”t know the details, they don”t know why it was happening,” Chopra said. “I don”t expect them to know everything.”
“Some of the American students I study with do not know about the whole world. A lot of people did not know about Afghanistan before September 11 they did not know who the government was, and it was pretty disheartening to see,” Chopra said. “If I grew up in the U.S., I probably wouldn”t know that much about the rest of the world. I blame it on the media rather than anyone individually.
“I think professors are well acquainted with the facts, but not every student takes a world politics class, and not every student takes time to sit down and chat with their professors, but when they do they do end up seeing things with a new perspective and in a new way.”
“Most Americans don”t have an accurate perception of what politics in Indonesia is like. Part of this is due to a general lack of interest in Southeast Asia by most, and part of it is due to the fact that even if an American were motivated to find an accurate perception of politics in Indonesia, one would be hard-pressed to find it even from specialists in the Western media,” Luhur said.
But the misunderstandings go both ways.
On of the apparent positive effects of Sept. 11 seems to have been an increased interest in understanding politics and culture overseas.
“Especially after September 11, there are people who make more of an effort to understand and not to judge. I remember freshman year, there were people who would ask me where Pakistan was and would we ride elephants over there,” Iqbal said.