International Herald Tribune: "Smoke and Mirrors" is a smart, insightful book about modern China… What sets Aiyar's work apart is that it is not written by an academic or expert, nor is it told from either a Western or Chinese viewpoint...... she has discovered a way of bridging her native and adopted homes. As someone well acquainted with the problems of Asian development, she easily sees past the smoke and mirrors of China's shiny new metropolises
Sonia Gandhi, President, Congress Party : Smoke and Mirrors is thoroughly entertaining and educative, written with wit and perception in a lively and evocative style. Aiyar’s observations and experiences helped me to better understand China to which I have been an occasional visitor.
FOREIGN POLICY MAGAZINE
Indias Chinese Wall
If you were born today, would you rather be Chinese or Indian?
Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China
To most readers, comparisons of China and India are nothing new. Whether its the breathless pace of Chinas economy versus Indias slower, more measured growth, or Chinas communist political system rated against Indias complicated democracy, the two countries are endlessly dissected in relation to one another. Yet amid all the hand-wringing over which country is beating the other in their race to industrialize, one simple question sums up very pointedly the debate over which one is making life better for its citizens. Its a question few dare to ask in polite circles: If you were born today, would you rather be Chinese or Indian?
Delhi-born Pallavi Aiyar, the first Chinese-speaking Indian journalist based in Beijing and author of an engaging new book about the two countries, takes on the charged question. The best option, she contends, is to be a high-caste Indian man. His political freedom would certainly outweigh the economic opportunities of any Chinese citizen, she argues. But if that werent possible, shed choose to be a wealthy Chinese woman, because she wouldnt be as constrained as her Indian counterparts by low literacy rates and limits on female participation in the public sphere. If she had to be poor, shed go with China. An Indian latrine cleaner may get to vote, she says, but a Chinese one is far less likely to be viewed as completely subhuman.
If it sounds like Aiyars five years in Beijing have left her reluctant to give a definitive answer to this questionone she poses often in her book, Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of Chinashe is. Like so many other foreigners who gradually discover China, her opinions are constantly evolving. What makes her unfolding view of a booming and globalizing China special is the mix of experiences she brings to bear: She has lived both in Asia and the West, worked in Beijing not just as a journalist but also as a teacher, and knows what her compatriots think of the Chinese as well as what the Chinese think of her homeland. She is, to borrow a term coined by another cosmopolitan writer, Pico Iyer, just the sort of global soul we need to guide us into a China that is transforming and being transformed by the world. And her book, which was released in September in India to generally positive reviews, has fresh things to say about the usually overlooked issues between these countries, such as the true experience of expats in both nations.
Part memoir and part reportage, the book covers the period from 2002 to 2007 and describes everything from the unique business opportunities that a booming China offered entrepreneurial yoga instructors, to the SARS scare, to the high-tech, high-altitude train to Tibet, on which Aiyar was an early passenger. After studying in Britain and the United States, she arrived in Beijing to teach English and went on to become the China correspondent for The Hindu.
Every foreign writers perspective on China is shaped by the country where he or she grew up. But Aiyar is refreshingly honest about this fact. She knows that her Indian background gives her a lens thats more interesting than most through which to watch Chinas rise. To many Indians, China is close to home geographically, yet mysterious and distant philosophically, often generating mixed emotionsincluding disgust (the strange foods), scorn (the limited freedom), and envy (the skyscrapers, the roads, the Olympics). Aiyar is a bit dismissive of some of these attitudes. When it comes to envy of Chinas transformation into a land with spectacular airports and highways free of potholes, though, her own awe-struck reaction helps us understand the nature of South Asian anxieties about the surging country to the east.
Throughout Smoke and Mirrors, Aiyar alternates between describing Chinese people, places, and events, and ruminating on their Indian counterparts. She also lets us eavesdrop on other Indians commenting on China and on Chinese airing their views on India. We meet Jayesh, a buyer from Mumbai working in the button trade: What we need is a government like these Chinese. No unions, no nonsense. And we hear from Nigami, a representative of an Indian bank, who complains about all the smoking and drinking involved in Chinese business transactions, which makes it difficult for us Indians to adjust here. The Europeans, of course, enjoy themselves here. . . . Many even marry Chinese girls and the food is fine for them.
From a Western perspective, it might seem that Aiyars book, with its reflections on Chinese-Indian tensions, the two countries differences, and their economic booms, has arrived a bit too late. A year ago, the totemic pairing of China and India dominated the Western press. Scores of articles fretted over how the joint rise of the Dragon and the Elephant would challenge the Westor salivated over the countries massive markets. Alternatively, some took a Dragon vs. Elephant approach. Overstating the contrasts between Chinese and Indian development paths (and overlooking the parallels between, for example, the two countries shared passion for five-year plans since the 1950s), commentators ranging from Danish political scientist Georg Sorensen to American business guru Jack Welch to various Indian public figures often used the two countries to support overly simplistic theses about globalization, democracy, and authoritarianism.
Of course, that was before the global financial crisis, the U.S. presidential election, and the devastating terror attacks in Mumbai. Now, the ways that China and India have remade themselves no longer have the same hold on short attention spans they did just a few months ago. Today, the sound of cascading market crashes seems to be drowning both the fretful and the exuberant China-India chatterbut not completely, probably not for long, and not equally in all places.
As for the not completely, consider this: A recent Google search for Dragon and Elephant yielded nearly 5 million hits, compared with just 531,000 for Eagle and Bear, a once dominant pair. On the not for long: However the financial crisis shakes out, well surely see these two economies continue to claim a more central place in global markets, and some analysts have begun to speculate that the crashes might ultimately give these rising powers opportunities to narrow the gap between themselves and the United States, Britain, Germany, and Japan. And not equally in all places? Keep this in mind: The front sections of American newspapers might have ignored it, but in late October the front page of The Hindu featured Russias announcement that it plans to move toward having China and India displace European countries as its main trading partners.
In that sense, the timing of Smoke and Mirrors is just fine. When the obsession with China and Indias mutual, competitive, and thrilling rise comes back into vogue in the Westand it willwe will benefit from having Aiyars cultural vantage point and nuanced lens. She will certainly serve as a better guide to exploring those issues that dont easily fit into the already hackneyed Dragon vs. Elephant clich. And when it comes to answering that all-important question of how these countries are improving the future for their citizens, who better to help us understand than someone who knows them both with the love of a native and the curiosity of a traveler?
|Magazine| Jun 09, 2008 |
Hindi-Chini, By And By
Lazy neo-Orientalist perspectives have clouded our view of China. A first-hand narration clears the air.
|An Indian window has finally been opened into contemporary China. Scores of books are now available on life in a changing China. But Pallavi Aiyer, teacher and journalist, is the first young Indian to have lived the experience and written about it. She has written a witty, insightful and profound book that every educated Indian must read to understand the life and loves, the fears and hopes, the ups and downs of our biggest, oldest and most important neighbour. |
Aiyer landed in booming Beijing to teach English to young and aspiring Chinese at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute. She learnt the language; learnt to eat "real" Chinese foodfrogs legs and allchose to live in a traditional Beijing neighbourhood, a hutong; refused to run away when the fear of SARS gripped China, and travelled all over by various means. Living with a Spanish partner whos a diplomat opened doors to a globalised new Beijing throbbing with activity. Living among the locals in a hutong opened windows into an old and dying Beijing. This dual exposure enables Aiyer to offer us a panoramic view of contemporary China.
We read about the aspirations and dreams of young Chinese. Of their political naivete and sexual promiscuity. Their deep patriotism and their growing materialism. We learn about how the young relate to the elderly and the new class of entrepreneurs relate to political leaders and government officials. Aiyers hilarious narration of how Indian wannabes relate to the Chinese and how the Chinese view India makes us laugh, at first, and then ponder.
India and China are two ancient civilisations that have grown next to each other without in any way cramping each others style. India influenced China, essentially through the spread of Buddhism, and China has influenced India, essentially through trade and cultural influences. But neither nation understands the other. Arising out of that ignorance is a relationship that swings between unabashed love (Hindi-Chini bhai bhai) and deep suspicion.
The Indian media has done little to bridge this knowledge gap. Aiyer is one of three Indian journalists stationed in Beijing. There are a few stringers in other places. But no media organisation has a budget of any significance to fund a proper news bureau in China. Indian academia has fared as badly.
Into this knowledge vacuum has rushed in a mass of comparative literature defined by what I would call a "neo-Orientalist" perspective. The Orientalists of the West saw the East as quaint and mysterious. One would have thought that the highly differentiated experience of Asian nations over the past 50 years, notwithstanding some premature claims about Asian values, would have buried this perspective. Alas, not.
Partly unnerved by the simultaneous rise of China and India, partly excited by the prospect of such a rise, partly unable to explain the post-war rise of Asia, all manner of half-wits have constructed neo-Orientalist perspectives on the two Asian giants. The spurious concept of "Chindia" and India-China comparisons are byproducts of lazy scholarship.
China and India are two distinct, great civilisations and rising powers. Two distinct models of post-colonial development. Two distinct forms of social and political organisation. Different every which way. Aiyer shows through experience, anecdote and analysis how different we are from each other. But like all very different neighbours, theres constant comparison of lifestyles and prospects.
China is without doubt ahead. But does ahead mean better? Thats the most frequently asked question, says Aiyer, and tries to answer it. Her answer is honest, wise and important. If one was economically well-off, India offers more opportunities.If not, China offers more security. China needs more democracy; India needs more inclusive growth.
But, more inclusive growth will make India more socially stable. Will more democracy make China more politically stable? Aiyer does not explore that question, but her description of social and political attitudes of the young should make one sit back and reflect. Chinas economic future looks more secure than its political and social one. Aiyers book offers new insights into the social, political, cultural and religious anxieties and aspirations of a new generation of Chinese, in an entertaining way. It deserves to be widely read in India and around the world.
I hope Aiyer continues to live and work in China for another five years at least, and that she can continue to write uninhibited and uncensored about life in a still changing society and nation that all Indians must surely know more about.
Hindu Business Line
International Herald Tribune
Time Out Hong Kong
Asia Times Online
Wall Street Journal Online