Faan Laih La!

I’m back.

The amount of time it should take a person to fly from India to Hong Kong is about 5 and a half hours. The amount of time it actually takes me is 24. Part of this has to do with the bizarre schedule of international flights out of Mumbai–they depart between 1 and 5 am. Which means that if you are connecting from a domestic flight elsewhere in India, which tend to fly during daylight hours, you are in for a long wait in Mumbai Airport.

It’s an instructive 8 hour wait. I am traveling from the world’s worst airport to the world’s best. Mumbai Airport is squalid. There are more passengers waiting than there are chairs. No restaurants, only a little “Internet-Snack-Cafe” with three dirty tables and a couple of ancient computer monitors. I log in, and am greeted by a barrage of pop-up ads for porn sites. About 3 minutes later, I manage to get into Gmail, which loads at glacial pace. This, in India, the land of the IT revolution.

Big black mosquitoes are checking out my exposed ankles under the computer desk. Mumbai Airport is bordered by one of the biggest slums in Asia. With visions of dengue and malaria dancing through my head, I quickly log off and head for the loo.

In the women’s bathroom at Mumbai Airport, an attendant in a grubby sari hustles me into a reasonably clean toilet stall. When I emerge, she pushes a hunk of toilet paper at me while simultaneously turning on the sink faucet. As I turn to go, the same hand, palm outstretched, is shoved into my chest with a nasty grunt.

At the other end of my journey, when I exit the Cathay Pacific flight and walk into the shiny, glassy cathedral of Chek Lap Kok airport, I feel like I’ve arrived in heaven or Oz.  In the bathrooms, faucets turn on automatically, simply by waving your hands, and nobody’s demanding spare change for a towel. The arrival hall dazzles me with possibilities: I can buy shampoo at Watson’s! Get a fresh juice at MiX! Go yam cha at Meih Sam, Maxim’s!

Meih sam. Beautiful heart. I am home.
Faan laih la.

While I was in India, a very nice young man, a recent business school graduate, cornered me at a party and started interviewing me as if he were a reporter, not an MBA. “You live in China, but you spend a lot of time in India. Here we feel like China is our competition. Since you have experience of both places, maybe you can tell me, which country do you think will win?”

I hesitated. The first thing I wanted to say is, “I don’t live in China, I live in Hong Kong, which is a different thing altogether.” But I realized my questioner wasn’t interested in these subtleties. And that tact was required, since the MBA was so young and eager. So I observed, diplomatically, that the Chinese seemed to be good at some things, Indians at others, and they both had many hurdles to overcome in the rush to economic development.

Later, I thought about the India-China thing. They’re both rapidly developing countries, each with a huge population of poor peasants at one end, and an entrenched elite at the other who are grabbing the lion’s share of the pie. And both are massively corrupt systems. (Every time I settled a bill in India, the proprietor offered to pad the receipt without my asking. When I’d refuse, they’d look at me like I was nuts.)

But India is a place where family, caste, community and religion are still far more powerful than consumer culture. India never had a Cultural Revolution. If anything, it’s had the reverse–a deepening of religious and community divisions under the Hindu Nationalists. The cities are filled with temples and the temples filled with worshippers. Neighborhoods are segregated by religion, by caste and community. Mobility in this society depends almost completely on the circumstances of your birth. Successful politicians are the sons, daughters or wives of other successful politicians. Industrialists, ditto. Bollywood stars are the children of other Bollywood stars.

The Cultural Revolution was a horrible, inhuman, devastating thing for China. But, paradoxically, it created a blank slate that now allows the Chinese to jump giddily into the dubious joys of consumer culture. (Another paradox–Mao wanted to make a Chinese socialist “New Man”. Instead, his insane purges of history, society and culture opened the door for the “New Consumer.”)

Yeah, there’s still guanxi and the political elite of the CP to contend with. But the grip of the CP on Chinese life simply cannot compare with the thousand-year-old baggage of culture, religion and social classifications that India carries along with it on the road to modernity. China’s corruption and one-party rule are far more likely to be cast off someday than India’s ancient social systems.

I love India. Its old and complex, living culture makes it a most fascinating place to travel. It is a  democracy, where people are free to speak their mind, and give their votes to whomever–Hindu reactionaries or Communists or film stars. Indians will not give up their ceremonies, their customs, their taboos. Nor will they give up their freedom to make noise, squabble, hash out their differences in public. As a place to explore and enjoy, I’d head for India over China any day.

But the very thing that gives India its character is what gives China its edge in this stupid development game. China will “win”. I just wonder what that “winning” is ultimately worth.

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