As others see us -- a few surprises

A recent dinner with civil servants from Asia delivered some interesting insights, Steve Kelman writes.

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I am faculty lead at the Harvard Kennedy School for a program in cooperation with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore that sends a group of about 15 early-to-mid-career Asians, almost all civil servants in their own countries, to our Ash Center on Democratic Governance and Innovation at for a semester of courses as part of a one-year master’s program in Singapore.

Since taking over the program two years ago, I have invited the students in groups of five to informal “get to know you” dinners shortly after they arrive in mid-January. My most recent dinner with such a group featured three Indians, and one each Malaysian, Filipino, and Singaporean.

The first question I always ask the students is who is visiting the U.S. for the first time (usually about half of them), and then what if anything has surprised them since they arrived. This time, this question prompted a fascinating discussion I found very illuminating and wanted to share with blog readers. It was a great window into how others think about us in the U.S.

The conversation started with two of the students commenting on the contrast between public transportation in Boston and Singapore. One student said she was “taken aback” by the dirty and frayed condition of the Boston subway system, compared with Singapore’s modern and spotless infrastructure. America was so rich, another student said, that he couldn’t believe this public face of the city was so impoverished. In Singapore, trains run on a schedule and keep to it consistently; Boston arrival seemed very haphazard by comparison.

I was myself taken aback by these observations. Americans -- including President Donald Trump -- often criticize the state of our infrastructure. That foreigners who are if anything inclined to assume the opposite have such a negative reaction themselves is an eye-opener.

The students were more positive in discussing their classes at Harvard. Their professors at home (at least in all the countries but Singapore) lectured very abstractly and theoretically, while their professors at the Kennedy School related what they discussed to real, practical issues. Our professors encouraged students to think critically and speak up with their opinions in class. In general, they felt much more engaged and involved in their education.

This didn’t come as a surprise to me, but many Americans may not be aware of these differences, which are in our favor. When we talked later in the conversation about immigration, they were worried that the U.S. was becoming less open to students from abroad (to study and then to work afterwards), which they thought was a bad thing. All had heard stories from home of students from their countries going to study in Canada, which was remaining more open, instead of the U.S.

I asked what they thought of President Trump, and the responses were not what I expected. Although a number of them were critical of the president (“I don’t like that he always talks about himself”), they were less hostile to him than most American students and faculty at the Kennedy School. I was surprised, actually, by how much sympathy they expressed for some of his views on immigration and foreign aid. One student liked that Trump was willing to make bold statements: “Most politicians wouldn’t do that, they’d be too afraid it might hurt their popularity. But he doesn’t care.”

We spoke a good bit about immigration. The students certainly didn’t use any of Trump’s rawer language, but they to some extent endorsed his more cautious view of immigration, compared with many Democrats at home.

One student said, “It’s not wrong to want to bring in qualified people as immigrants.” Another added, “I don’t like immigrants just being allowed to bring in their relatives. We wouldn’t allow that in our country.” A third thought it was too loose to allow people into the U.S. on temporary visas after a hurricane and then simply allow them to stay indefinitely.

“In Singapore” –- a country that has long had a large immigrant population, the Singaporean student said -- “we have a consensus that our borders should be maintained. We make sure that immigrants come in in a proper way, with visas.”

The students also felt the U.S. had “wasted a lot of money” abroad that was sent to countries that didn’t use it well.

There was one topic where the students’ observations were true to form. Despite our own self-doubts, and the growing drumbeat out of China to the effect that their orderly, controlled system is superior to western cacophony and confusion, the students generally like our democracy. (One student was concerned, however, that our democracy makes it too hard to get decisions and a sense of direction.)

Referring to Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury, one student said, to general approval, that “the U.S. is the only country in the world where a book can be written criticizing a sitting president.” That’s not completely true of the whole world, but is true of the Asian countries from which these students come.

What others say about us enlightens us about ourselves.

NEXT STORY: Is another shutdown coming?

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