U.S. apologizes over American diplomat’s “dirty” remarks in India

Laura Rozen
August 16, 2011

The United States has apologized and expressed deep regret for an "unfortunate" comment made by an American diplomat in India.

Maureen Chao, the vice consul of the U.S. consulate in Chennai, India, was speaking to students at a study-abroad orientation program last week at a university in the capital of the southern-most Indian state of Tamil Nadu, when she recounted her own experiences as a study-abroad student in India two decades ago.

"Some 20 years ago, I was a student like you and had an opportunity to do a semester abroad," Chao told the students, India's NDTV reported. "I chose to come to India, fascinated by the culture and religion."

"I traveled across villages to understand the culture better. I was amazed at the graciousness and friendliness of the people," she continued, before describing a long train journey, during which her remarks went -- so to speak -- off the rails.

"I was on a 24-hour train trip from Delhi to Orissa," the eastern Indian state, Chao continued, according to Agence-France Press. "But, after 72 hours, the train still did not reach the destination ... and my skin became dirty and dark like the Tamilians."

The U.S. consulate soon posted a statement of apology on its website:

"During the speech Ms. Chao made an inappropriate comment," the statement, posted Saturday, read. "Ms. Chao deeply regrets if her unfortunate remarks offended anyone, as that was certainly not her intent."

Chao's comment came while she was attempting to recount  "positive memories from her own study experiences in India 23 years ago," the statement continued.

"As Secretary [of State Hillary Clinton] recently noted, the U.S.-India partnership is based on our shared values of democracy, liberty, and respect for religious and cultural diversity," it went on. "The U.S. Consulate in Chennai and the U.S. Mission in India are committed to upholding these shared values.''

Tamil Nadu officials were reportedly not satisfied with the apology, however.

The chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalitha, denounced the vice consul's comments in a letter to the U.S. Consul General Jennifer McIntyre, the AFP reported. "This remark which smacks of racism is highly condemnable," the letter read in part. "You will agree that this remark of the vice-consul is an affront to all Tamils."

Chao did not immediately respond to a query from The Envoy. Her consular biography indicates that she is not someone who spent her whole career among the diplomatic class in the Foreign Service; instead much of her pre-foreign service background was spent working with foster children, refugees and immigrants.

A former Fulbright fellow in Vietnam with a Ph.D. in higher education, Chao, before joining the State Department, "worked with international education programs for fifteen years, as well as in the social services field with foster children, refugees and immigrants and low-income/homeless populations," the biography says.

One former American diplomat and South Asia hand, who asked to share his thoughts anonymously describing a sensitive personnel matter, said of the undiplomatic incident to The Envoy: "I've seen this type before--idealistic middle-aged person with an NGO or Peace Corps background who joins the Foreign Service without an awareness that everything s/he says is subject to be pounced on, scrutinized or twisted."

A State Department spokeswoman told The Envoy she may have further comment over the incident later today.

UPDATE: State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland commented on the case at the State Department press briefing Wednesday:

"We consider the comments absolutely unacceptable," Nuland said. "I think you saw that [Chao] apologized almost immediately.  She's also gone to — voluntarily enrolled in a cultural sensitivity course.  But obviously, they're unacceptable and inconsistent with core American values."

Asked if Chao had gone on leave, Nuland said to check with the consulate in Chennai, but reiterated that Chao had "voluntarily enrolled in a cross-cultural communications and understanding class."