By Marta Cooper
This post is the first in a series of blog entries from the Shanghai International Literary Festival. Held at the city’s Glamour Bar and M on the Bund overlooking the Huangpu River, the festival, now in its ninth year, has become an institution in the city’s spring calendar. From 4th – 20th March, the event will showcase 87 writers, bloggers and journalists from seventeen different countries.
There is one question that Pallavi Aiyar reveals she constantly grappled with as a China correspondent. “I was asked, both by Chinese here and Indians back home: which is better, China or India?”
With today’s attention focused on emerging superpowers, the crude comparison is an inescapable one. But, as Aiyar told an eager crowd of Literary Festival listeners on a recent wet Sunday afternoon at Shanghai’s M on the Bund, the reality of living in one country on the rise while hailing from another is a little more complicated.
In her 2008 book, Smoke and Mirrors, which earned her the China-India Friendship Prize, Aiyar chronicles her experiences in the People’s Republic. She spent six years covering the country, becoming China bureau chief for The Hindu in 2003. Her fresh perspective lies in that she doesn’t approach the vexed question of ‘Chindia’ as an academic or expert, but as an Indian correspondent sharing with readers a sense of the everyday.
The New Delhi native was not led to China by an Orient-influenced lust. It was a Spanish Sinophile boyfriend (and now husband) whose own interest brought her to Beijing in 2001, but it only took her to step off the plane for an “instant” fascination with her new home to take hold.
“I miss the earthiness of the place,” she waxes nostalgically. In her new base in Brussels, Aiyar laments European rules and restrictions, longing for the crafty, entrepreneurial and flexible spirit of the Chinese: “they could sell contact lenses to a blind person or chicken feet to a vegetarian.”
Aiyar’s initial lack of knowledge about Chinese culture, language or politics seems the norm in her homeland. “There’s prejudice and an emotional disconnect. Only a minority of Indians actually like China,” she says candidly. “There’s a lack of empathy, but also a sort of China pathology. India is always benchmarking itself against it.”
With China’s unabashed growth now making it the world’s second largest economy, it’s unsurprising that India, namely its middle class, treats its neighbour with a blend of fear and admiration. “There’s road envy,” Aiyar says of China’s unstoppable construction. “I’ve had Indian friends come to Beijing and say, ‘Wow! There are no potholes on the roads! And the Chinese drive so well!’.” This awe stood in stark contrast to Aiyar’s European visitors, most of whom looked around aghast at Beijing’s signature smog and lawless motorists.
The 2008 Beijing Olympics cemented this trepidation, Aiyar states: “India saw the opening ceremony and said ‘oh, s***…’.” And while the recent Commonwealth Games may have given India its own chance to shine, Aiyar argues that they only showed how these two Asian heavyweights are not in the same league.
Nonetheless, there are some fundamental similarities that can add a little grey to an otherwise black-and-white comparison. As Aiyar describes, “There is a resonance of experience in being developing countries, in battling corruption, change, social relations…there is this sense of universality.”
But is one, in fact, “better”? Aiyar compares the poverty of China with India, noting how even dustbin men working in her Beijing hutong would wear gloves (showing “self-respect”) and how their children went to school; how modest gains signalled a wealth of opportunities. While India might be democratic, she added, the chances for upward mobility in China were even more palpable.
Yet China came with its own frustrations. A genuine fear of reprisals made sourcing information from interviewees a disheartening struggle. Alongside this was a stifling lack of passion for debate and ideas that made Aiyar pine for her homeland, a place where the only consensus was “knowing how to disagree.”
It is this complex reality of the everyday that Aiyar wants readers to take from Smoke and Mirrors. “There has to be a third perspective,” she says. “China is not so shocking.”
Aiyar’s warm and witty candour was a reminder that the heart of living abroad is not so much our new surroundings, but how we respond to them. She puts to us all a question as simple and essential as the one she faced during her time in China: “What is normal?”