Thursday, July 12, 2012

China-India: the cultural myth

In the Indian media, China and India are often clubbed together in political and economic discussions. There is a tendency on the part of Indian journalists to refer to the two countries as one intelligible unit, mainly using the perspective adopted by certain international bodies and organizations in matters of economic policy. However, aside from the obvious and well-recognized fact that there are gargantuan differences between their respective socio-economic profiles, there are also great cultural differences that are elided when such references are made in the media.

From a lay perspective, Chinese culture and Indian culture most certainly fundamentally differ in an indefinite number of ways. Let's look at it from the point of view of migrants. The Chinese migrant in a foreign country forms or reinforces a distinctive cultural identity and usually becomes part of a visible and cohesive group of fellow compatriots. The Indian migrant, like the African emigre, does not necessarily become part of a cohesive group. There is a discernible lack of cohesion in Indian migrant communities, and there are several linguistic and cultural factors underpinning this diffuse state of being. There might be specific instances of well-formed and discernible groups of Indian migrants, but if you notice a little more carefully, you will usually find that they belong to a single ethnic or linguistic community. This difference in tendencies of migrant group-formation is reflective of internal cultural vicissitudes. While the Chinese can claim to have a certain degree of linguistic uniformity, Indians can only claim the exact opposite. There are several other factors that contribute to their mutual distinctiveness, and many of these are less palpable. There are subtleties of speech and conduct that cannot be adequately translated from direct experience to writing.

How does one explain the difference in the approach of the Chinese storekeeper from that of the Indian storekeeper? The petty bourgeoisie as a class constitutes the most visible segment of all migrant communities taken collectively. In my experience, while certain storekeepers of Indian origin (including those from countries such as Mauritius and Fiji) express a sense of familiarity that borders on the curious and informal, Chinese storekeepers tend to assume a more incurious, subdued and taciturn demeanour. A strict sense of formality marks their speech and interaction with customers in general, even their Chinese customers.

One gets the sense that the Chinese emigre is more inward-looking and self-content, exuding a sense of self-sufficiency quite unique in international settings, and yet simultaneously more likely to become part of a support network of fellow migrants. The Indian emigre does not identify with a pre-existing or nascent group of fellow migrants as easily. Considerations of class, language, ethnicity and background tend to effectively create more lacunae among Indian migrant communities. There are many different facets of each culture that cannot be adequately understood from this limited perspective, but overall, there are several nuances that distinguish the two cultures. Any and all references to the China-India combine as a homogenized entity, particularly in the Indian media, are, as mentioned earlier, not only politically and economically inaccurate but also culturally misleading.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Pagoda Street, Chinatown

I haven't updated my blog in a while, and so I thought I'd write about my recent transit week in Singapore. Singapore is a truly beautiful city, but its beauty can so easily be miscontrued as clinical modernity and organized perfection. The drive to the city from the airport is deliberately designed, unlike many other places, in such a way as to astound the visitor with its overabundance of greenery and sense of endless space. The moment you leave the airport, you're sold. But the city itself is so much more fascinating for its absolutely pragmatic and yet aesthetic conception of space and access. Chinatown, for example, is a thriving historical and artistic amalgam of European and Chinese architectural elements that commingle so effortlessly and yet in such a planned and deliberate manner. The lines of brightly coloured buildings are punctuated by temples and concrete complexes housing hawker centres, against a backdrop of gigantic apartment complexes on one side and the towering clusters of the CBD skyscrapers on the other. In this area, the intimate and uber-chic pubs and restaurants on Club Street open out into the wide, open grids and gigantic structures of the CBD. Arab St. and Haji Lane are quaint, totally bo-bo (bourgeois bohemian) and so fantastic. Little India has a lot of atmosphere, and you can feel the departure from regular Singapore. Geylang, where we stayed, is a sea of Chinese, Korean and Thai restaurants, arrayed in a highly visually arresting manner. Its shops, restaurants and bars are open all day and night, till 6 in the morning. It's also the red light district of Singapore and the centre of the most pulsating noctural gathering of old and young alike. The atmosphere of familiarity, openness and directness is a far cry from any suggestion of hypocrisy. It's vibrant and alive.

People in Singapore are extremely private and inward-looking. From a lay traveler's point of view, traveling on the MRT is a good indication of how people interact with each other (or not). Most passengers on the buses or MRT will obsessively engage with their phones or ipads and maintain an equilibrium of silence. People avoid eye contact like the plague. What becomes really obvious when you use public transport is the tremendously cosmopolitan nature of the city. While people of Chinese origin constitute approximately 85% of the population, Malays, Indonesians, Indians, Europeans, Arabs, Japanese form a large swathe of the people you encounter on the streets. While most of the city speaks English (or Singlish, its local hybrid form), many Chinese vendors in Geylang (for instance) do not speak the language. As for food, not even an entire tome would do justice to the wonderful and endless variety of cuisine available. For me, the best kind of restaurant in Singapore is the Chinese buffet, where rice is for 50-70 cents, each kind of vegetable for 50-70 cents and meat for 1 dollar. So, for a full meal of rice, vegetables and perhaps two kinds of meat, you'd pay approximately 3 dollars.

Most of Singapore's landscape is populated by high-rise apartment buildings, and because the state needs to be economical about its use of space, many of the private condominiums and Housing Development Board (HDB) buildings offer small but perfectly complete and aesthetically designed living quarters. The government offers various family planning incentives to citizens as well, which I learned from my family friends there. While buying a house close to your parents gets you a 50 grand rebate, having a certain number of kids by a certain age (I think 30) will allow you to avail of special tax benefits. In HDB buildings, a set ratio of ethnicities is maintained. A Chinese owner can't sell his apartment to a Malay or Indian buyer, and vice versa. There are strict regulations governing these aspects of life. Morever, discussions of religion, ethnicity and certain other subjects are socially (and perhaps legally) frowned upon.

Singapore, like certain other cities in Asia, has a very special kind of atmosphere. Its modernity, its technological prowess and its ambitious aestheticism combine to produce a unique effect on the traveler. Simply put, I really like Singapore. I think I'd like to go back again. It's a young country but there's a lingering sense of history, and simultaneous renewal. It's hard to describe this. Most people see a modern, developed Singapore but there's a distinct memory of the past that underlies its very fabric. I started reading the memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew on my last day there (first prime minister; discusses the Malay-Chinese problems of the pre-partition days and consequent independence from Malaysia) but couldn't finish it. Could be interesting to locate it again and read about the development of Singapore from his vantage point.