I’m back home at my desk at last. Feeling slightly spaced out still. This is hardly surprising given the jetting across time zones I’ve been doing recently. UK to India. India to China. China to India. India to UK. All within a month. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so tired as I do now even days later – or do I mean daze?
It has been worth it. We’ve spent quality time with my wife’s mother in India, and with our son and his wife in China. That was all very rewarding.
What about the countries in themselves?
The Dark Side
Well, they provide a fascinating contrast in spite of certain similarities.
The core distinction I’d summarise by saying India is free but chaotic, while China is oppressed but organised. They’re both impatient cultures currently and both are struggling with corruption, though India probably more so. Also in both countries a rising tide of competitive materialism is threatening to drown other ancient and more holistic traditions.
A stark and distasteful example of the unhealthily excessive influence of money in China is the practice of scalping. Michael Sandel discusses this in his thought-provoking book What Money Can’t Buy (pages 24-25). This practice rides on the back of increasingly scarce hospital appointments for many rural patients whose hospitals have closed. They are forced now to attend at city hospitals in high demand.
They queue up overnight, sometimes for days, to get an appointment ticket to see the doctor.
. . . . . But it isn’t easy to get one. Rather than camp out for days and nights in the queue, some patients, desperate for an appointment, buy tickets from scalpers. [Scalpers] hire people to line up for appointment tickets and then resell the tickets for hundreds of dollars – more than a typical peasant makes in months.
In India there are even worse examples (see link):
For at least five years, thousands of young men and women had paid bribes worth millions of pounds in total to a network of fixers and political operatives to rig the official examinations run by the Madhya Pradesh Vyavsayik Pariksha Mandal – known as Vyapam – a state body that conducted standardised tests for thousands of highly coveted government jobs and admissions to state-run medical colleges. When the scandal first came to light in 2013, it threatened to paralyse the entire machinery of the state administration: thousands of jobs appeared to have been obtained by fraudulent means, medical schools were tainted by the spectre of corrupt admissions, and dozens of officials were implicated in helping
The investigation into the scam lead to many deaths:
. . . . . as the investigation widened, people started dying. Some had perished before the taskforce had a chance to interrogate them – such as Anuj Uieke, a medical student accused of working as a middleman connecting exam aspirants and Vyapam officials. He died along with two friends also accused of involvement in the scam when a truck ploughed into their car in 2010. Others apparently took their own lives, like Dr Ramendra Singh Bhadouriya, who was accused of cheating his way to a medical college seat in 2008 and then helping others do the same. He was found hanging from the ceiling fan in his home in January 2015. (Five days later, his mother took her own life by drinking acid.) Another suspect, Narendra Tomar – a seemingly healthy 29-year-old veterinary doctor at a government hospital, who had been arrested for his role as a middleman in the scam – had a sudden heart attack in jail this June and died in hospital the next day.
Not that scalping is the worst of what China is alleged to be doing according to an Amnesty international report (see Guardian link):
Chinese security agents continue to employ a medieval array of torture methods against government opponents, activists, lawyers and petitioners, including spiked rods, iron torture chairs and electric batons, a report claims.
The Amnesty International report, called No End in Sight: Torture and Forced Confessions in China, is based on interviews with nearly 40 Chinese human rights lawyers and contains chilling details of alleged beatings and torture sessions endured by those taken into police custody.
Also Wild Grass by Ian Johnson contains disturbing though more routine abuses, for example (page 39):
[One] district had a population of 65,000, although 25,000 had found conditions so difficult that they’d left to find work in the city. Taxes for a family of five amounted to an astonishing $310 a year, virtually wiping out every family’s cash income. Despite that, the village governments that collect the taxes were under such pressure to keep channelling money to higher-ups that each village in the township owed on average a staggering $500,000 in back taxes.
I am always conscious at the back of my mind of such disturbing news stories when I am planning to visit either of these countries.
What is the experience of the visitor though – me in this case?
My Personal Experience
Inevitably direct experience over a short period of time does not lead to a confrontation with the dark side of either culture. So here goes for my attempt to capture the impact of each culture during my one month’s shared exposure to both.
My recent poem on the traffic and the crowds in Mumbai captures perhaps the most striking impact of that city’s environment. You end up deafened and dazed by the din even before you risk the dangers of crossing to the other side of the street. The relative silence and order of the Shanghai traffic was a welcome relief, though the rapid weaving across all lanes on the motorways outside was a heart stopper.
A constant tickle in the throat signalled high levels of pollution in both cities. A taxi driver told us there are a million taxis in Mumbai alone. Admittedly, given that the cramped boundaries of the city hold the same population as Australia, only about one in every twenty people is a taxi driver, if that figure is correct. In China, at the same time as the growing economy has lifted millions out of poverty, it is killing roughly a million people each year with pollution-related diseases.
Landing in Shanghai once more reminded me of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s description as his ship approached New York harbour in 1912: on seeing the Wall Street skyscrapers ‘He had laughed and said, “Those are the minarets of the West.”’ (Diary of Juliet Thompson – page 233). Even since 2013, when we were last there, the number and height of these temples of materialism have increased massively. Not just towering office blocks and shopping malls now display their competitive geometry on almost every corner of every street, like gigantic peacocks of capitalism determined to impress: there’s more than a shade of Ballard’s High Rise here as well, I feel.
India has not yet joined this wasteful race. Yes, there are some skyscrapers but nowhere near so many. It is possible to move along at street level and not feel constantly dwarfed. Yes, the pavements are dirtier and far more uneven, and you need to watch where you tread all the time, and the roads are pockmarked with all-too-frequent potholes, but that felt somehow less intimidating, even though it probably indicated that significant amounts of money were going astray into someone’s pocket without reaching their intended target.
There was one way in which, on this trip at least, China had a distinct advantage over India in terms of the impression it made on us. We didn’t stay in Shanghai. And we didn’t move to another big city as we had done in the past. We drove to Dafeng. By UK standards, with a population of 750,000 it would qualify as large. By Chinese standards it’s a small town. Not only that but we drove out of Dafeng into the surrounding area to visit a family who had farmed there for three generations at least. And that was very dfferent from what we had ever experienced before.
The town of Dafeng was at one level a kind of miniaturised Shanghai, though with its own charm thrown in, being smaller in scale and boasting narrower bridges. The smog when it happened on one day we were there was just as thick though. But it was surrounded by countryside. Acres upon acres of flat farmland criss-crossed with canals and ditches, with no tower blocks, only single storey farm houses and barns. There was calm and quiet with sunsets and cloud-scapes of unassuming beauty.
In India, because our priority was to spend as much time as possible with my wife’s mother, now in her nineties, we were stuck in Mumbai, which had not been the case in the past when, even if starting there, we had escaped to the hills around Poona into villages such as Panchgani where the international Bahá’í school is located. On this trip, however, we were locked into the cacophonous pollution of the megacity.
A Sense of Common Humanity
What was interesting though was the way that even this contrasting experience reinforced a sense of common humanity. In Dafeng we visited a family where the grandmother and her two sons, who lived close by, were sharing the work of the farm. Signs of the scale of this, sacks of corn piled halfway to the ceiling, almost hid one whole wall of the dining room.
Inside her home we had a heart-warming surprise. My wife looked at the simple wood-burning stove on which the grandmother had cooked our food that evening and exclaimed, ‘That’s exactly the same kind of stove that my grandmother had in Yazd where my mum grew up!’
Suddenly, her mother living now in Mumbai and reared in Yazd, and this household in Dafeng, instead of being distant not just in miles but in kind, were intrinsically related at a basic level through a shared simplicity in their backgrounds. They had a common heritage hidden behind the differences. This somehow symbolised for me the often so invisible but fundamental bond of common humanity that binds us all together in spite of our insistence upon our differences.
This reinforced a sense I had experienced a couple of days earlier, as we sat eating round a different table in a different more modern house, and I was listening to the ebbs and flows of conversation in Chinese, a language I do not know at all. You would think I would have felt a stranger in a strange land, and in one way of course I did. But at another level I tuned into a powerful sense of our common humanity, how behind all the differences of language and cultural trappings, we were every one of us essentially the same. I could identify the teasing, the affection, and even the tensions, that the dance of their conversation expressed, even though I had no idea what they were saying specifically.
At the back of my mind the words at the core of Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice (Act III, Scene 1, ll 40-45 – RSC Edition) murmured themselves quietly:
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?
This was one of the most important lessons I have brought back with me from this demanding but rewarding trip. What binds us together at this deep level is of far more importance than what tends to split us off from one another. We are indeed ‘leaves of one tree’ even though it has been all too easy in the past to pretend that we are not.