In her post, “I Am a Good Muslim: I Wear the Veil,” Navine Murshid describes being mistaken for an Indian, and a Hindu. Although Navine and I wandered through those alleys near Nizamuddin Dargah together, my experience was in some ways the opposite of hers. In India, I felt like I found out what it's like to be white.
China and India are both huge multicultural societies, and there are no doubt some Chinese people who look like some Indian people. (They share a border, after all.) But I am not one of those people, or I was not in the right part of India to pull that off. In all the places that we went, the Indians around me treated me like a first world tourist. Which is what I was. But it drove me nuts. I felt like all the Indians around me assumed that I was rich, powerful, imperialist, capitalist -- all the time. No escape. I couldn’t turn it off and melt into the crowd. Not that these judgments do not hold some truth (certainly more truth than the pretense that I’m just another resident of Beijing or Bangkok), but still. Is this what it's like to be white and nonwhite country? It’s so annoying.
But after a few days, I started worrying that the Indians around me actually thought I was Chinese, and that might be worse than being white.
Before going to India, I had read in the New York Times that many Indians were obsessed with China, constantly comparing the two countries. In May, Amartya Sen published an article, “Quality of life: India versus China.) In preparation for the trip, we read Aravind Adiga’s wonderful 2008 novel, The White Tiger. The narrative is structured as a series of letters from a protagonist to Wen Jiabao, the premier of China, who is on his way to visit India. Adiga has his central character write, “I gather you yellow skinned men, despite your triumphs in sewage, drinking water, and Olympic gold medals, still don't have democracy…. If I were making a country, I get the sewage pipes first, then the democracy, then I go about giving pamphlets and statues of Gandhi to other people, but what do I know?”
In India, I couldn't help noticing that the way many Indians view China was colored by a certain defensive touchiness. I enjoyed reading local English-language newspapers in India; their snarky tone and slashing political critiques were so different from the state political coverage of official Chinese newspapers (but quite similar to Chinese blogs). In every paper I read, there would be a front-page story describing some kind of slight aimed at India (or Indians) by China (or Chinese people). The Chinese government had snubbed an Indian delegation by issuing an inadequate number of visas! Two Indian businessmen in China, terrified by threats from Chinese locals after a trade dispute, locked themselves in their hotel room because they were “fearing for their lives.”
I found these articles fascinating because they were considered front-page news in India, but they would not be considered news at all in China. In Chinese newspapers, the obsession is with the US and Europe. The tone used to be touchy defensiveness, but since the recession, that’s been mostly replaced by a certain smugness: Today’s People Daily frontpage headlines include “Europe Will Go Through a Tough Time in 2012”and “Blaming China won’t Solve US Problems.” I see no articles about India. In China, I don’t hear many people talking about India. A Chinese student at Colgate said to me, “People in China don’t think much about India. They think it’s a backward place.” This was the point of the NY Times article, which was titled “India Measures Itself Against a China that Doesn’t Notice.” No wonder Indians are prickly about China.
After my one brief trip to beautiful, exhausting, dynamic, heart-breaking, thought-provoking, wonderful India, I want to tell everyone in China what I told that Chinese Colgate student: It would be a good idea to pay more attention to India.