Tuesday, November 13, 2012

From ‘Smoke and Mirrors. An Experience of China’ by Pallavi Aiyar

Given that 375 million Chinese were ostensibly learning English I felt mildly surprised that I hadn’t as yet encountered any of them.
The women themselves seemed unable to grasp that I did not speak Chinese, convinced that if only they spoke slowly and loudly enough, long dormant Mandarin abilities would awaken within me.

Private ownership of cars went from virtually zero in the 1980s to 70 per cent of all cars on China’s roads by 2005. People no longer needed permission from their work units to travel or marry. These were heady, liberating times.
Of course, you could still be jailed for criticizing the government. You could have your land summarily expropriated by the powerful and be imprisoned without trial for daring to protest. You could be charged with a crime, sentenced to death and executed within the space of hours. This was the nasty flip side to the broad roads and shiny buildings that lined Beijing and Shanghai. China jailed more journalists than any other country in the world. It executed more people than any other country in the world.
These were facts never mentioned in the state media.

The two major differences between learning Chinese and most other languages were its tones and characters. Mandarin lacked an alphabet and used instead more than 4000 characters or ideograms. Compared to the twenty-six leters of the English alphabet Chinese characters were an ocean of plurality, but when it came to actual sounds the range of the language was one of the narrowest in the world.
It was a phonetically poor language resulting in an abundance of homonyms distinguishable only by their tones, of which there were four in Mandarin.

The fact of my being Indian was most often met with an outburst of song. ‘Abala Gu’ sang fat drivers and skinny ones, tall drivers and stocky drivers ……
………my brother had told me of his having picked up the Awara Hun riff even on the streets of Lima in faraway Peru. Nonetheless, the ubiquity of the song’s popularity in Beijing, was unexpected to me……

The tensions within Chinese society had little release so that the whole country was like a pressure cooker, calm on the top but boiling inside. India with its riots and strikes appeared on the surface to be far more chaotic and unstable but in the long run had developed the institutional mechanisms that enabled it to create, albeit creakily, a slow, broad-based consensus.
………India in fact enjoyed the kind of social stability that was for the Chinese authorities a paramount but elusive goal.

China was a country where ordinary people were offered few opportunities for the release of their frustrations…..

……..Jawaharlal Nehru in Discovery of India, where he said India was an ‘palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously.’

Many times it was authoritarian China that seemed to offer greater social justice for its people, freedom for its women, protection for its poor. China’s people may have lacked a ‘voice’, but so did most Indians. India’s poor had a vote, but this did not always equal a voice.

……..Indians and Chinese were in fact largely culturally untranslatable to each other.
Nowhere was there less mutual comprehension than in attitudes to food. In India, elite Brahmins delineated their status by increasingly finickier food choices:  no meat, no garlic, no onions, no non-vegetarian in the kitchen. In China, the greater the variety of things you could afford to eat, the meatier and the weirder, the higher was your status.
In India, even non-vegetarians would only eat certain animals and then only certain parts of those animals. So chicken was okay, but not chicken feet. Lamb was fine, but not the intestines. Prawns were good, but not octopus. To an average Chinese such discrimination was deeply mystifying.

Watching their Indian guests sniff suspiciously at their soup for traces of animal stock, harried trade officials would lean across to me and wail in distress, ‘You Indians. You don’t eat anything!’ A few minutes later, having just been confronted with chicken feet …….one of the Indian delegates would…..whisper in disgus in my ear, ‘These Chinese. They eat everything!’

The Chinese capital’s airport was also the only one I had seen in the world where the security check, complete with manual patting down, was performed on both male and female passengers by women.

…..the one-child policy was a two-sided coin, particularly in a country with a deep traditional preference for male children. ……in the countryside ……it meant the regular aborting of female fetuses by parents hell-bent on ensuring that their one child was a boy. Most analysts in the field agreed that China’s sharply distorted sex ratio of 117 to 119 boys for every 100 girls was in no small measure the result of the Chinese state’s attempt at demographic engineering.

‘Jes is just expressing an opinion. Don’t take it personally,’ I smiled. ‘In countries like Indian and Denmark people often openly disagree with each other on a topic and that’s okay. They can still agree on many other things,’ I said.
‘I know,’ replied Xiao Yan with a toss of her head. ‘But in China it’s different. We must all think the same thing.’

Diversity did not frighten New Delhi in the same way it seemed to Beijing, given that the only majority in India was in fact the experience of being a minority. In China this was a concept that was not only alien but almost incomprehensible.

In short, to be a Christian Naga who spoke no Hindi in India was a happier prospect than being a Tibetan Lama who spoke no Mandarin in China. In China non-conformity made you suspect; in India it was simply the norm.
The two countries were thus like mirror opposites of each other. One provided roads, schools and electricity but stifled diversity, criticism and participation; the other allowed diversity, criticism and participation, yet achieved little in improving livelihoods and providing economic opportunities.

……Chinese society remained deeply anti-intellectual. More a product of a political and educational system that discouraged criticism and encouraged grop think than any primordial characteristic, this was the aspect of China I personally found most wearying.
It was the absence of passion for ideas, the lack of delight in argument for its own sake, and the dearth of reasoned but brazen dissent that most often gave me cause for homesickness.

But then I would return to Delhi for a few days and almost immediately long to be back in Beijing where a woman could ride a bus or even drive a bus without having to tune out the constant staring and whispering of the dozens of sex-starved youth that swarmed around the Indian capital’s streets at almost any given time.

China’s economic achievement over the last thirty or so years may have been unparalleled historically, but so was India’s political feat. Its democracy was almost unique amongst post-colonial states not simply for its existence but its existence against all odds in a country held together not by geography, language or ethnicity but by an idea. This was an idea that asserted, even celebrated, the possibility of multiple identities ……… India’s great political achievement was thus in its having developed mechanisms for negotiating large-scale diversity along with the inescapable corollary of frequent and aggressive disagreement.

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