India and China: A comparison

June 25, 2010

This is first in series of comparisons that could be done between the two countries. For all the non-inspiring traits I mentioned about us Indians, there is one that surely is commendable; as Swami tried to point out – and that is freedom of speech; which is how I am able to write this so freely and you are able to comment so freely (Thanks for your comments). It’s true that I always took this freedom of speech for granted and never realized its value till I got to China – which is at the other extreme.

When we are outside our country we become even more strongly aware of our nationality as we are representatives of our country outside. Let me further explain what it means to me today in an international setting, with people from different nationalities. When a westerner asks about some problems in India, we normally tell them it’s because of the population and they wouldn’t understand as they don’t come from a populated country. But this answer cannot be given to a Chinese person, as after all this is the only country with a population that matches ours (although the population density is lower). Of late, on my trips to India, I have ended up accompanying Chinese on their first trip to India (including a senior Chinese delegation once) and I can tell you they are appalled; mostly by the infrastructure, rather the lack of it. This is compounded by the fact that Chinese government’s answer to all woes is the infrastructure stimulus package. The rate at which the infrastructure is being developed here needs to be seen to be believed. So when the Chinese person comes to India and sees lack of good wide roads, highways, metro system and so on, they can’t believe that this country (which lacks basic infrastructure) will compete with China. Of course, Prof Gupta and his Chinese wife put it very aptly when they say though China is clearly ahead of India, the former looks stronger than it is while the latter is stronger than it looks.

An incident that comes to mind is when I accompanied the delegation to the Taj Mahal from Delhi and the highway was blocked by the villagers who were protesting against a murder – so we ended up taking a kuccha road which increased travel time substantially. The woes didn’t end there. In spite of being put up at the best luxury hotel within 500 metres of the Taj, the golf cart ride to the Taj proved to be a pain for them with urchins trying to climb onto the cart and ask for money – a scene straight out of slumdog millionaire! And then we have the likes of Amitabh Bachchan saying Slumdog is ruining the image of India – but that is the real India! If we/ the Indian government are so concerned about the “image” of India, then the road leading to the Taj Mahal should be cleared of illegal hawkers, urchins, and the likes. In fact given that the Taj Mahal is among the wonders of the world and one of top tourist destinations in India this is the least we can do.

Last night while posting the comments in response to Swami I talked about how we in India have the freedom to move to any city and if I don’t have  place to live there, I can live on the road creating a slum. While slums are clearly not an Indian phenomenon alone, mention must be made here of China’s ‘hukou’ system (system of residence permits, which makes it difficult to move across cities, thereby limiting mass movement of people from rural areas to cities). India, being a democracy doesn’t impose any restrictions on movement of people within the country and as an Indian I am free to go to any part of India. But they think it’s better to restrict movement than to have slums. Now, China’s hukou system has been criticized a lot as explained in this article which is blocked here (an example of the internet restrictions here). But to the Chinese, India’s problem are the slums and also the fact that our government does nothing to control the population growth – again an issue of democratic right of deciding how many children one wants to have. Now an important point as far as beautification of cities is concerned is that in China; the face is Shanghai and it’s very well decorated/ prepped up…but West China (which is the rural China) is the ugly underbelly that China doesn’t want to show. Whereas in India, it is what it is – all out in the open (we really don’t try to showcase only some places which make us feel good about our country). Which I would think is truly commendable and something to feel proud of as an Indian.

Also, lest I be accused of only drawing attention to annoying habits of Indians, I must say the Chinese have their own idiosyncrasies, what with the government in Shanghai trying its best to convince people not to spit, not to wear pyjamas during the expo. And for Deepesh’s comments, would say that the mainland Chinese will surely not read this due to their aversion towards reading English (manifested by the education system). Also, important to note here is that when we Indians feel superior because we know English, we tend to forget that it’s in a way thanks to the British colonization legacy! As for Arvind’s comments; most Indians would become more concerned about country’s image when outside as that’s when you are truly a representative/ ambassador of your country! So if and when I don’t conform to the stereotype image foreigners have of India (after seeing movies like slumdog millionaire); I do tell the story of the elephant and seven blind men and try to explain what being Indian means (which is how the previos post came about). I try to explain how our country is a melting pot of so many different cultures, languages, religions, customs, rituals, and so on.

In the coming weeks, I shall attempt to compare the two countries on food, language, outlook towards progress, outlook towards the west, internet freedom, and so on.

What does it mean to be Indian?

June 13, 2010

(This is a controversial post)

It happens almost every day. I get into a taxi to get to work or return from work and once I have explained my destination in Chinese; the taxi driver will ask “ni shenme guo jia de ren?” (Where are you from/ which is your home country?) And nowadays I have started asking the drivers to guess (“ni cai”) and in most cases the drivers never guess I am Indian and on knowing I am Indian, they want to know why I don’t wear a bindi, or how come I work (yes, people here have a strange notion about Indian women). Now this takes me back to a conversation I once had with an American who asked me if I go to office on an elephant! And an African who once told me I must feel so “free” to wear shorts (this conversation was taking place in Kuala Lumpur) as I might be wearing saris all the time back home! And a Korean who thinks that western outfits are not sold in India at all.

Now most of the above reflects lack of knowledge about India/ Indians. But what strikes me most if that they all have a certain stereotypical image of India. The number of people who have mentioned slumdog millionaire to me within 3 minutes of a first encounter on knowing that I am from India is not funny! To my mind, the challenge is that there is actually no definition/ stereotype of an average Indian – except probably that most Indians like cricket (no wonder it’s called the common religion of India). While the average Joe (American) is described age 25 or older, made roughly $32,000 per year, does not have a college degree, has been, is, or will be married as well as divorced at least once during his or her lifetime, lives in his or her own home in a suburban setting, and holds a white-collar office job (according to Wikipedia); there is no definition of an average Indian – even if we try to attempt one, it would be difficult to come up with an accurate one! Most of my conversations with friends/ acquaintances from across different countries/ cultures take place in this way:
Are most Indian vegetarians? – well, largely yes
Is it because of religion? – largely yes, but depends as many are vegetarian out of choice and many are religious but eat meat or don’t eat meat but drink alcohol (difficult to explain, right!)
Do most Indians live with their parents? – yes, but it depends – people do move out to different cities to work/ study
Are all marriages in India arranged? – largely yes, but depends really on the individual/ family.
Are there any good looking men in India? (question most often asked by Asian women who think the typical Indian man is short, fat, balding and one who doesn’t care about personal grooming!) – Well, yes, I can show you some of my friends who are good looking!
Do women in India work? – if they want to, like anywhere else (but yes, not like China where almost all women work!)
Is the bindi a sign of marriage? – largely yes among Hindus, but even single women wear it and many married women don’t – so it depends! (Also interesting to note here that unlike other countries, a lot of married Indian men do not wear a ring, actually giving out signals that they are single and available :P)
What is staple diet in India? – depends on which region you are talking about
What is the common language in India? – hmmmm, English!

Well, you get the drift… So I always tell the story of the seven blind men and the elephant to my firang friends – Each one touches a different part and comes up with his own description of the elephant. Similarly depending on which part of India one visits or meets an Indian from which part of India, one is bound to come up with one’s own stereotype images of typical Indian! And the fact is that these images will vary greatly from one another.

Of course a lot of these differences (including the differences in physical characteristics) can be attributed to the Aryan-Dravidian divide, the different religions, customs, languages and the caste system. So while there cannot be a common physical characteristic (except that most Indians are increasingly leading unhealthy lifestyles leading to obesity and heart diseases); based on observations of Indians back home and in a global/ international scenario I thought of similarities in behavioral characteristics and came up with the below:

  • Indian Stretchable Time (IST) – An utter disregard for time, one’s time as well as other’s time. Turning up late for meeting/ appointments, dialing in late for conference calls, turning up to meet people without appointments, making people wait – we just don’t respect time! In most countries, for a 9 am appointment people would reach by 8.50 whereas Indians most likely will make it by 9.15/ 9.30 and walk in without bothering to apologize for being late! (probably the only notable exception here is people in Bombay whose lives depend on that Virar fast/ Churchgate fast – but then they too may not respect time in other aspects of life)
  • Sense of superiority – its very interesting to note that how we as a race have a certain false sense of being superior. We just assume we are smarter than the rest. While it’s good to have confidence, a know-it-all attitude just spells doom and makes us come across as arrogant. Just saying that you don’t know something opens up a world of learning/ opportunity. The Indian way may not be the best way for everything and there is a lot we can learn from others by keeping an open mind.
  • Aggression/ Competitiveness – While some may argue that aggression is more in northern parts of India than Southern, overall as Individuals, we are very aggressive. Sometimes in cultures where direct confrontation in front of others is considered rude, an Indian manager often ends up offending his/ her subordinate. The difference to be noted here is that this aggression in sadly missing at a country level. So while China is aggressive as a country today we are aggressive/ ambitious as individuals resulting in Indians as individuals outshining at global levels but the country failing to do so, as compared to China
  • Self over team – Continuing from point above, we are excellent when it comes to working individually; but find it difficult to work as part of a team. And everyone wants to be the manager, not the worker. A story that comes to mind here about rowing competition between India and Japan. How Japan team won easily as they had 7 rowers and 1 captain but the Indian team had 7 captains but 1 rower. And they attributed the loss to the rower not doing his work properly! We generally find it difficult to be open to “listening” to others point of view and working together with them. It’s generally my way or the highway.
  • General disregard for other cultures – As part of my job, I am always on conference calls involving India, China and most times these calls have Indians, Chinese, and people belonging to other nationalities. Most times, Indians due to “sense of superiority” and “aggression” mentioned above will completely disregard other cultures, not taking efforts to slow down while talking to make it easier for other person to understand, talking without listening, shouting, etc. Again a point to be noted here is that the same Indian will go out of his/ her way to speak in a British/ American accent if required but won’t slow down when talking to people from non-English speaking countries. This is because the superiority complex we have as compared to many other nationalities also leads to an inferiority complex when it comes to some countries, largely UK, US. Also, the disregard for time zones and calling people on their hand phone after work hours, marking every mail important/ urgent even if it’s not all leads to irritation/ confusion in a global scenario. I am not saying all other cultures understand India, but to exemplify, it’s a fact that an average Indian in China (as compared to say a Westerner here) would not be comfortable eating with chopsticks or even try to understand cultural things like clocks and mirrors are not appropriate gifts for Chinese.
  • Equating job/ work with oneself – An equation that most Indians don’t understand is that life > work. I would be very scared if someone would not be able to think of me beyond the work I do. But the fact remains that power, position, status, job are so important to the average Indian that some even print their designation and company name on their wedding cards! Marriage is for lifetime (ideally) and I can’t understand for the life of me why anyone would want to have their wedding invitation look like a CV!
  • Moral policing/ crab mentality – We want to always have a say on what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s acceptable and what’s not. The moment someone tries to do something different, like a bucket of crabs we start pulling that person down/ back in. The numbers of examples that come to mind warrant a post in itself!
  • Attitude towards children – A friend of mine put it very nicely recently when he said that for most Indians, their dreams/ aspirations end the day their children are born and they start inflicting their unfulfilled dreams/ aspirations on their children. Compared with many other countries and cultures, there is a higher sense of protectionism around children and higher expectation levels as well. Go to a school open house and you will see parents busy comparing why their child lost that 1 mark in the history paper! The focus is not so much on overall development but on academics, though that is changing as parents realize alternative careers thanks to the likes of Dhoni being successful. Also, unlike western mothers, Indian mothers are just not comfortable letting their children be while they get some “me-time”. This is more so the case with infants – while it’s a common sight to see western mothers with infants/ toddlers traveling, meeting up for lunch, going shopping or treating themselves to a spa; for Indian mothers, having a baby in many ways makes them confined to their houses – they are just not comfortable taking their babies out! Even when it comes to traveling in cars, most Indians refuse to have a child car seat and will make their baby sit on the laps in the front seat which is actually more dangerous! I will elaborate on this more in travel point next.
  • Attitude towards travel – This is one of my favorite ones. Go to any airport in the world and it will be easy to spot an Indian family – most likely a family of 4-6, all on the healthy/ overweight side with lots and lots of luggage (we never learnt how to travel light!) and bringing out one packet after another of snacks. If there is an infant with the family, it will be crying loudly and the parents just look helpless. On the other hand, westerners travel a lot (even on leisure) and with infants – it is a common sight to see them traveling to tourist spots (including beaches) with infants/ kids – and a point to be noted here is that their babies in most cases are not crying out aloud thanks to the pacifier. Maybe Indian mothers have some kind of an aversion to pacifiers, but just think about it – most Indians who start a family just stop taking holidays until the kid grows to a certain age! Now this is quite a common Indian phenomenon which in inexplicable to me! Another thing about travel is that while the average western couple in their retirement may want to go on a world tour, the Indian has just started getting there.
  • “Chalta hai” attitude – No social welfare, a painstakingly slow judiciary (leading to murderers freely roaming about and partying), political leaders who cant run to save their lives (literally), lack of basic civil infrastructure, lack of safety for women (sometimes even inside their own houses), the Bombay drainage system not prepared for the monsoon and the same story being repeated year after year – and what do we do – shrug it off, say “chalta hai” and do not bother to know where our hard-earned money paid as taxes is going. In fact, in most cases our attitude towards it is one of apathy at best – we have become experts at turning a blind eye to all the crap going on around us. And a few years ago, we were also fooled into believing that “India is shining”. While the best people in China join the biggest political party in the world, the best people in India are working on Wall Street, Silicon Valley, teaching in universities abroad, making money in the stock markets while politics remains a “family business”. We need to be in the system to change the system – but we just don’t want to be. In most cases, an IIT/ IIM degree is the passport to “better life” outside the country. And even if it’s within the country that we choose to work, do we really care about the above mentioned points – nah, we are more interested in FIFA world cup (where we are not even represented as a country) or in the latest I phone. After studying “business leadership and strategy” one of the most coveted jobs is that of a trader in a bank – I still don’t understand what “leadership skills” are required there! There is a saying the Chinese believe in – “community over self and country over community”; in India it’s often the reverse, community over country and self over community!

I know its sounds pessimistic but I could not think of a single very inspiring/ positive common trait across whole of contemporary India – something that the world can learn from/ hope to emulate. Would love to hear about your definitions of a typical Indian!

China’s biggest import and India’s biggest export!

November 8, 2009

China’s biggest import is not commodities from Africa or India but human resource, especially in the big cities. From executives in MNCs to teachers, waiters, chefs, bartenders, musicians, artists, yoga teachers to businessmen, restaurateurs – foreigners can be seen working everywhere in China. Most MNCs have highest number of expats working in China among all geographies they are present in. This is because of two main reasons – China’s booming market (while there is a slowdown in most other parts of the world) and lack of local managerial talent in the middle kingdom. A few articles here illustrate the point:
It’s almost like China opening its doors to foreigners and saying “come and partake in the growth story”.

In most cases, foreigners who come to China either love it or hate it – it’s very rare that one would be indifferent towards this country! Generally, once one overcomes the basic culture shock, it actually translates to a better life with lower cost of living (the best part is that alcohol can be procured very cheaply), services of ayis (maids) and chauffeurs available for a reasonable amount, cheap takeaways (specially if one likes Chinese food) and good basic infrastructure; specially for a westerner.

The number of foreigners learning Chinese around the world is estimated to be around 40 million.
Why, even IIMA has students learning Chinese now, eager to explore job opportunities in the fastest growing country in the world. ( Jim Rogers has a Chinese nanny for his kids as he wants them to learn Chinese. In fact according to Jim Rogers, the 19th century was the era of the British Empire and the 20th century was the U.S.’ heyday. But the 21st century is China’s. So while we Indians pride ourselves on our knowledge of the queen’s language; mandarin seems to be the language of the future. (I will write separately on the language bit in detail).

Now contrast this with India, which has always been very good with exporting people but not so good at importing them. Indians travel well, adapt well, and the Indian Diaspora is well spread across the world. But is India open to foreigners – Bangalore has come known to be as the most expat friendly city in India. The local Bangaloreans have a problem with the IT culture; wonder what they have to say about their city being most preferred city of foreigners in India. Take the commercial capital of India, Mumbai or Bombay as I like to call it – as per 2008 data there were 4000 expats (including returning NRIs/ PIOs) living and working in Bombay (number of foreigners living and working in Shanghai was estimated to be more than 68,000 in end of 2008). Of course, the normal response to this as a proud Indian would be that India has a vast talent pool; we have Indians heading global businesses; so why would we need foreigners working in India. But the other way to look at this is having foreigners working in the country helps add to diversity and internationalize the work place. But alas, for the living and working conditions in India are not conducive to most foreigners – as there is no life in the work-life balance in India; especially in cities like Mumbai. The lack of basic infrastructure – housing, comfortable public transport, good roads (especially in Bombay) makes life quite difficult for someone used to good infrastructure as a given. Not surprisingly, the foreigners don’t exactly feel at home working in India as much as they do working in China.

Mirror Images of Greatness

August 8, 2008

An edited version of the article below appeared in the New Indian Express today. They cut a few lines, and I prefer my own paragraph breaks, but I have to give them credit for coming up with an awesome headline. Anyhow, here’s the article in its unedited form:
Read the rest of this entry »