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Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China

Pallavi Aiyar's Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China is the first-ever book written by a Mandarin-speaking Indian foreign correspondent on China.
by Stephanie Valera
6 April 2009

NEW YORK, April 6, 2009 – An Indian who came to China to teach English, author Pallavi Aiyar
has been praised by critics for her unbiased—and equally
scathing—treatment of both India's and China's cultures. Aiyar sees
both peoples in ways which they themselves are unable to, and goes one
step further to explain why and how it is that their common people have
grown so accustomed to their respective positions.

In a discussion at the Asia Society with Wall Street Journal International News Editor Rebecca Blumenstein, Aiyar talked about her book Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China, a
combination of travelogue, reportage, and memoir and the first-ever
book written by a Mandarin-speaking Indian foreign correspondent on

Aiyar knew little about China before she
arrived there to teach English news writing at the Beijing Broadcasting
Institute. She found it difficult teaching Chinese students the
difference between news and propaganda in a country where the media are
seen as the "tongue and mouth of the government." While in Beijing,
Aiyar also began working as a freelance writer and later as a reporter
for the Hindu group of publications. After living in the Broadcasting
Institute’s dormitory for a few years, Aiyar decided to move to one of
Beijing's hutongs to find "the soul of the city." In the narrow,
winding alleyways that make up the hutongs of old Beijing, Aiyar said
she found people of every social class, age, and gender.

discussed her book's portrayal of China through Indian eyes and vice
versa; a mirroring that reveals the failings and achievements of both
civilizations—which are in many ways each other's alter ego. She spoke
of the labor efficiency that leads China to practically throw together
a hospital while noting that a 20-meter underpass in Delhi takes three

Aiyar also noted the different roles religion plays in
each society. While there has been some growth among religions in China
in recent years, it does not pervade Chinese society the way it does
India's, she claimed. Food was another major cultural difference Aiyar
found between the two countries. As a guide and interpreter for
visiting Indian delegations, Aiyar often found herself explaining to
Indians the Chinese preference for exotic food and explaining to
Chinese that many Indians are vegetarians. It was at these dinners that
she realized "the talk about India and China coming together to
dominate the 21st century is nonsense because the food just didn’t

The author also touched on the simple and
innocent unawareness that Chinese students seem to have about the laws
they live under; the low standard of education in India, which she sees
as crippling to its competitiveness; and the irreconcilable tension
surrounding Tibet. She stated that both India and China will play a
more dominant role in the world as their economies continue to grow and
Western economies shrink.

Additional reporting by Matt Sullivan