NEW YORK, April 6, 2009 – An Indian who came to China to teach English, author Pallavi Aiyar has been praised by critics for her unbiased—and equally scathing—treatment of both India's and China's cultures. Aiyar sees both peoples in ways which they themselves are unable to, and goes one step further to explain why and how it is that their common people have grown so accustomed to their respective positions.
In a discussion at the Asia Society with Wall Street Journal International News Editor Rebecca Blumenstein, Aiyar talked about her book Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China, a combination of travelogue, reportage, and memoir and the first-ever book written by a Mandarin-speaking Indian foreign correspondent on China.
Aiyar knew little about China before she arrived there to teach English news writing at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute. She found it difficult teaching Chinese students the difference between news and propaganda in a country where the media are seen as the "tongue and mouth of the government." While in Beijing, Aiyar also began working as a freelance writer and later as a reporter for the Hindu group of publications. After living in the Broadcasting Institute’s dormitory for a few years, Aiyar decided to move to one of Beijing's hutongs to find "the soul of the city." In the narrow, winding alleyways that make up the hutongs of old Beijing, Aiyar said she found people of every social class, age, and gender.Aiyar discussed her book's portrayal of China through Indian eyes and vice versa; a mirroring that reveals the failings and achievements of both civilizations—which are in many ways each other's alter ego. She spoke of the labor efficiency that leads China to practically throw together a hospital while noting that a 20-meter underpass in Delhi takes three years.
Aiyar also noted the different roles religion plays in each society. While there has been some growth among religions in China in recent years, it does not pervade Chinese society the way it does India's, she claimed. Food was another major cultural difference Aiyar found between the two countries. As a guide and interpreter for visiting Indian delegations, Aiyar often found herself explaining to Indians the Chinese preference for exotic food and explaining to Chinese that many Indians are vegetarians. It was at these dinners that she realized "the talk about India and China coming together to dominate the 21st century is nonsense because the food just didn’t translate."
The author also touched on the simple and innocent unawareness that Chinese students seem to have about the laws they live under; the low standard of education in India, which she sees as crippling to its competitiveness; and the irreconcilable tension surrounding Tibet. She stated that both India and China will play a more dominant role in the world as their economies continue to grow and Western economies shrink.
Additional reporting by Matt Sullivan