Archive for May, 2009

27
May
09

Experiences from the 39th St Gallen Symposium

I had been trying to write a post on the St Gallen Symposium, but I had so many things to say that it was hard to write anything at all. I think whatever I remember right now is what will stay with me for a long time. Everything else is either lost or hidden in my memory.

First about the symposium. It brought together 200 students from 68 countries along with a couple of hundred high quality business delegates and university professors. The idea is to create an atmosphere for debate and exchange of ideas between qualified and important stakeholders on an important world theme. This year was the 39th symposium and the topic was ‘Revival of political and economic boundaries’. The organizers pay for all the expenses of the traveling students. It is a free trip to Switzerland with no strings attached. Just write the essay.

Hanging out before the conference.

Hanging out before the conference.

Because they can

Because they can

Most students were accommodated in apartments of University of St Gallen students or in a youth hostel. My host was exceptionally accommodating and that made my experience very pleasant. I can’t thank him enough or stop talking about his wonderful thatched house.

The beautiful house my host lives in

The beautiful house my host lives in

I really loved the internationalism of the entire conference. The student participants all hailed from different backgrounds which created opportunities for lively dinner table discussions and debates, in addition to learning more about different cultures. And all of them had qualified through an essay competition which meant they were very smart, especially when it came to economics and business, which was the major focus of the symposium. I was in the mini-club of engineers and scientists at the symposium and in the smaller club of non-academically inclined. Most students were pursuing economics, political science, international relations, business, law, etc. Since I hardly have any friends who are in similar disciplines by virtue of interest, I enjoyed their company. In fact I felt they were my peers compared to my Pilani classmates, since I have very few friends I can have a stimulating discussion with on politics, energy or economics. Towards the end of the conference most of us agreed that an university that consists only of the symposium attendees would be an amazing place to study in! I will miss the people I talked to and learnt so much from a lot. Also a friend from Japan who till the symposium was planning for a masters in biotechnology, decided to instead get a masters in economics. That is the kind of influence this conference can have on lives!

Eating together

Eating together

Good old coffee and conversations in the sunshine

Good old coffee and conversations in the sunshine

One very comforting truth I realized there was that we all might have been from completely different cultures and value systems, but we all had so much in common; mutual respect, curiosity, passion for knowledge and genuinely trying to make this world better. Me and a French student had surprisingly so much in common not only in the way we thought but also in movies, music, websites or books we loved. The world really is such a small village. And for the first time I was actually finding a practical use for all the random trivia that I have stuck in my head. For example just being able to recollect the capital of Mongolia or the flag of Portugal is such an ice-breaker and comfort builder. I was very surprised by the amount of knowledge people had about India and their interest in the country. Also a few of them had traveled in India. My substitute for lack of traveling outside the country, was a fantastic recollection of country capitals, personalities from lots of countries.

One of the fun pre-conference activities

One of the fun pre-conference activities

Not sure whats happening here

Not sure what's happening here

BRIC citizens :)

BRIC citizens 🙂

The quality of the conference itself was outstanding. They had a wide gamut of topics for discussion in either the keynotes or in the smaller special sessions. Topics covered themes of financial crisis, energy, government regulation, emerging economies, politics, automobile and aircraft industry, BoP, etc. It had something for everybody. With the financial crisis on everybody’s mind, there was quite a bit of focus on it. But it also meant that not too many peopel were over-optimistic or arrogant with their thoughts. And also students were the loudest mouths in the Q&A sessions. Perhaps the business leaders wanted some fresh ideas, so they were interested to listen. Not all sessions satisfied me, but some surprised, while others excited me. I listened to all energy sessions carefully, and though I was disappointed with a few answers to my questions, over all I got a lot of perspective on what my career could be and future of energy for the world. I would suggest going through the videos of the symposium to get bites of the sessions. 

One of the keynote speakers talking about oil security

One of the special sessions

One of the special sessions

About 20% of the time was dedicated to Q&A, which the students just loved

About 20% of the time was dedicated to Q&A, which the students just loved

Finally I can’t help, but feel inspired by the ISC team which organized the entire conference. 24 undergraduates leading 300 others pulled off the entire conference, with a budget of certainly a few million USD. I’ve attended the Fortune Global Forum 2007, which had some of the most famous businessmen of the world and I can tell you organization-wise, this was way better. Everything was well planned and the students were friendly, calm and helpful. There was hardly a glitch! And my room was much better than the 27K INR-per-night suite at a 7star hotel. I was surprised that they had hired a few ex-airforce men to teach the committee how to handle stress!

 

One of the volunteers for the Food&Beverages team

One of the volunteers for the Food&Beverages team

They had these cute cars branded with the symposium logos to drive people around

They had these cute cars branded with the symposium logos to drive people around

They even dressed up in the cultural dress of the country they were serving food from. Here being taught the right way to serve something by the chef.

They even dressed up in the cultural dress of the country they were serving food from. Here being taught the right way to serve something by the chef.

So in brief about the symposium:

1. Its a free trip to Switzerland

2.  Its as international as you would want it to be

3. Brilliant speakers and sessions on business, economics, and politics

4. Posh treatment and hospitality

5.  One of the best experiences you would have as a student

6. And it is a lot of fun

I am applying again next year and I see no reason why you shouldn’t. It is totally worth the pain you would go through writing the essay.

ps: Ah and one last thing about my essay. I was reading essays of a few people I met at the symposium and compared to theirs mine looks so mediocre. Not in terms of facts or my style of writing, but rather in terms of actually contributing to the dialogue and discussion of the theme. Mine reflects the most obvious view point, which is decreased Globalization, without presenting any good case in its favor. A very journalistic account of things, perhaps I should have spent more time on making my thoughts clearer. I am glad that there are others who’ve got optimistic ideas for the direction the world should move in. I’ve personally always been quite libertarian in terms of how indviduals in a country should be treated, but I’ve been more leftist, inclining towards increased regulations in cross-border affairs. I don’t think this is against the spirit of economic Globalization.

25
May
09

I am dark skinned and proud.

I was just reading this article in Outlook about how this election perhaps proves that voters are not swayed by religion, caste etc any more. At least not the majority of them. I am not fully convinced about it, because Congress did play the caste card frequently. But nevertheless it is a good piece and we need more discussions like these.

It actually got me thinking about how much discrimination exists in India today. Both negative and positive discrimination. By negative I mean, decreasing opportunities for people of a certain segregation. Its the discrimination we all know. And by positive I mean, creating opportunities for people of a certain segregation, like reservations in universities, jobs, etc. My post is too short for me to give enough justice to both the discriminations, I hate so much. I also feel so strongly against them that I don’t think I can write sanely and make any sense.

So I will just talk about one not so invisible discrimination, but rarely talked about. Color.

I’ve been thinking a lot about it after my two weeks in Switzerland. For the first time ever in Switzerland I felt comfortable in my skin color and body appearance. Let me explain. I am dark skinned and Indians would call me ‘skinny’. Both these characteristics have been the exploited to the core by my friends while teasing me. When I was a kid, being teased about being of a skin color not considered to be desirable by popular notion, made me cry. Later it just became easier to laugh at myself and secretly keep applying mom’s ‘Fair & Lovely’ to try and lighten my skin tone. And the first thing my female relatives or friends of my mom, would remark on seeing me after a long time, would be ‘You’ve grown darker.’ As if that was an unfortunate thing. I won’t even discuss that this obsession with fair skin seems to be more female driven than male. Seen the disgusting ‘Fair & Lovely’ ads? Only fair women get jobs and husbands. This is very well reflected in the matchmaking sections of the newspapers. Mentioning skin color is almost neccesary. And the high prevalance of ‘fair’ in the postings makes me think that perhaps dark skinned people feel inferior to even take out a posting.

What really pains me though is that I see this among my educated friends as well. Jokes about my dark skin seem so juvenile and painful to me that everytime a friend tries that on me, I hate him a little more for being so insensitive. People might say it doesn’t affect daily lives or hiring process. But I know for a fact that it does. I know for sure it does affect men’s perceptions of women, not very sure about vice-versa, but considering women are more obsessed with such trivialities I would be surprised if it didn’t. At my university, I was a part of a club(rather a festival department) which blatantly would recruit new female members on the basis of looks. If you conformed to commonly accepted notions of beauty, like fair skin, you were in unless of course someother club had snatched you already. I am sure the members of the club would go on to try and hire women for their looks in their day jobs as well.(This is not a jab at my club, but at the entire new member recruitment system at Pilani.)

So in India when I go to Northern cities, first thing people try guessing which state I might be from and then immediately expect me to be stereotypical. They are surprised when I speak fluent unaccented Hindi and curse that people down south don’t know any other languages, while they are content with speaking a single tongue and bad english. And then they are obsessed with skin color, going to no end with foundation creams and talcum powder to enhance theirs. That obsession extends to making fun of my ‘Gult'(slang for people from Andhra Pradesh) skin color.

This is simply insensitive and a very corrosive feature of our Indian society to consider dark skin as inferior.

So in Switzerland I was actually surprised when people didn’t stare(I get more stares walking in some Delhi lanes). People didn’t judge or size me up by my skin color. I expected some to immediately assume I was Indian or Sri Lankan, but I was always asked where I was from. And I didn’t feel any insensitivity about being Indian or dark skinned. Having friends who are shamelessly stereotypical, I initially made a few bad jokes about being American or China. I stopped the second I realized I was being a jerk.

In the entire country, entertainment industry especially is obsessed with fair skinned actors. In fact Frieda Pinto had no chance of entering the movie industry if it wasn’t for the western director. Andhra Pradesh movie industry hardly has any dark female actors. Dark male actors are used only for comic or negative characters. Now this is discrimination on the basis of color.

Think about it. How does it make sense that fair skin is better than dark skin? We love dark clothes, but wouldn’t like a dark skin? Isn’t beauty a matter of perception? I personally find dark skin more attractive than fair skin, but that doesn’t mean I let that inhibit my logic and discriminate against people with lighter skin. Think very hard about for how long has this idea about dark skin being uglier than fair skin has been stuck in your head. It is time that we as society stopped being

This is me.

Me

Me

And I have a beautiful skin tone. I will no longer stop myself from being indecent when you are not decent enough to consider my feelings while making my skin color the object of your poor sense of humor.

Addition after reading Gangu’s comment. I am not against being jocular about this issue or trying to be extremely politically correct about this. What I can see is that such things are so deeply ingrained in our Indian psyches that it plays a role while making judgments. Now that is unfortunate. I agree not many would see the point of this post, but perhaps you would if you stand outside this all in my shoes and then think. A close friend pointed out that we have so many prejudices today, things we just can’t explain. Like naturally assuming beautiful people as dumb, there are so many of these that we suffer from. I think it is important that as we progress as a society, we would get rid of some of them.

ps: My friends reading this might find it surprising that I’ve written about this because I’ve never spoken about this to anybody since I was, maybe 10yrs old. I’ve ignored it for a long time but it does bother me.




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