People panic in a crisis. Logic does not always work in the face of a direct threat to you and your family. As the coronavirus originated in China, surely, all Chinese folks, and even those who look like them, are its potential carriers and must be rigorously avoided. A video that was reportedly shot in Kenya and has been doing the rounds on Twitter shows a crowd surrounding a Chinese couple. “You are corona!” a local shouts at the Chinese woman. The locals nearly punch the Chinese man who is trying to defend his compatriot.
Nepal has thus far been lucky to have escaped the corona contagion, even though its entry cannot be ruled out, most likely via the open India-Nepal border. The arrival of Chinese nationals via air routes has not been completely halted either. Yet doctors and virologists have a point when they say that had corona entered Nepal, it would have been hard to keep it down; the number of infected people would have exploded in our jam-packed settlements.
Coming back to the Chinese, Nepalis are naturally wary of the people they know little about. Different political systems, different self-beliefs, different food and language—there is so much that separates us. This is why even though most Nepalis have enormous goodwill towards China as a state, and as that important counterbalance to India, they can’t easily relate with the Chinese people. It won’t be a surprise if scenes like the one shot in Kenya were to be repeated here. Or in India. I remember an experienced Nepali diplomat telling me about how easy it was for him to deal with the Indians over the years. Yes, there were many differences, and yet there was also the feeling that the two sides understood each other. With the Chinese, it was a different matter altogether. The Nepali diplomat often felt his Chinese counterparts had agreed to certain things on the basis of what they had said, only to be later told that there had been no such agreement. The Chinese don’t mean what they say, he said. With them, you have to learn to read between the lines. Perhaps he would have said something similar about the Indians if he was not so familiar with the Indian way of life.
Thankfully, thousands of our children are now learning Mandarin. There is no better way to understand a foreign people than by understanding their language. Let us hope that in the days ahead we will be in a position to deal with China more productively, both at diplomatic and people-to-people levels.
Crisis creates panic. But a crisis like the coronavirus contagion also offers a rare opportunity to see the commonalities between us—and to build on them. We don’t need no foreign language to understand human suffering.