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The whole world as home: A chat with globetrotting journalist Pallavi Aiyar
India-born, Spain-based writer and global thinker Aiyar on the joys and quandaries of raising pan-global children
Quotidian illuminations through the prism of family
IH: Hi Pallavi, thanks so much for joining us at inter mundus! First things first, I’d like you to introduce yourself and your relevance to the topic.
PA: So I was born and brought up in India, and lived there until I was twenty. And I’m now 47. So I've spent the longer part of my life outside of India. And this came about because I went to study in the UK 23 years ago, in 2000, while I was doing my masters. That was when I met the person who is now my husband. That person was from Spain. Spain and India have very little bilateral connection so it was very random, meeting a Spaniard in London, and falling in love with him.
But even more than that, apart from being a typical Spaniard, this was also someone who was really interested in, and at that time, obsessed almost, with China. And at that time China was the last place that I saw myself going, because Indians of my background are quite Anglophile and western-oriented. So if you want to introduce yourself to going abroad it would be to the United States or the UK.
China had never occurred to me, despite the fact that China and India are neighbouring countries, and the fact that we share almost 4000 kilometres of a boundary. At the time, China didn’t loom as large in the imagination. In fact, there was a China-shaped space in my mental map of the world, because we hadn’t had diplomatic relations for decades, and there hadn’t been very much going on between India and China 23 years ago.
So when Julio said he wanted to move to Beijing I thought this was a kind of pretty fantasy, and I wasn’t really sure where this relationship was going. My Masters was two years long, with a year in Los Angeles, meanwhile Julio went to Beijing to study the language. But long distance we continued this relationship and he persuaded me to visit him in Beijing, just for a couple of weeks. That was a turning point.
I remember arriving in China in December. I was traveling into the city in a taxi, looking out the window and seeing the kinds of incredible dynamism and energy which was really palpable and almost physically manifest in the kind of buildings that you were seeing being constructed. You could see the tectonic energy with which the city was being rebuilt. And you very quickly got a sense that something's going on over here. I immediately felt that this was what would dominate the global conversation going forward, and that it was the kind of place where if you were there at the time, you would tell your grandchildren. So I moved to Beijing in 2002 and managed to get a job teaching English, and the rest is history.
We ended up having a very peripatetic global life. We spent seven years in China. I had my first son, Ishaan, who was born there in 2008. And shortly after that we moved to Brussels, and Julio sat the exam to become a civil servant to the EU. We were in Brussels for three and a half years, when I had my second child. Three and half years later we moved back to Asia, but this time to Southeast Asia, Indonesia, which is one of the world’s most important, least understood countries. It’s a country that consistently punches below its weight, because it's the fourth most populous country in the world, and it is a moderate Muslim democracy. And it’s really a leading light within ASEAN, which is a very important grouping regionally. So my boys went to kindergarten and primary school in Indonesia. Then my husband was posted to Tokyo, so we spent the next four years there.
So then, when I say I am a globalist, I also developed as an Asianist. And then we shifted back to Europe during the pandemic. So now they are in middle school in Spain.
I write a weekly column for the media outlet, Money Control. It’s called My Family and other globalisers, so I spend a lot of time thinking about wider issues through the prism of family. It’s a very interesting way to look at global issues and generational issues, but through a personal lens, because I believe that the quotidian has a lot to reveal about things that are bigger issues in public discourse.
A pan Indian family: almost as risky as a pan global family
IH: I remember reading about your complex Indian heritage and learning to navigate that within a very complex country. How does that experience compare to the complexity that your children identify with?
PA: There's been a hybridity in my personal background and that goes one generation back to my parents background. Because the image of India abroad, which is one that is very true, is that people tend to marry within their communities. I think over 90 percent of marriages happen within language groups, caste groups and regional groups. Despite the fact that we are a diverse, pluralistic country, we don’t actually see that many cross boundary interactions particularly when it comes to marriages. But I think the people that really broke that mould in my family were my parent’s generation.
We already had the beginnings of a pan Indian family, which was almost as risky and as rare as a pan-global family. It began with my father. He came from a very conservative, brahminical background in South India. He was one of three boys and a girl and his father died when he was pretty young in a plane crash, and he was essentially brought up by his mother, who was a well educated woman. She narrowly escaped becoming a child bride, and was brought up in the 1910s by a social worker and was teaching at a university level. So she was well educated but in terms of her values, was a very conservative woman. Her oldest son ended up marrying a Sikh woman from Punjab, and my father married my mother, who was from a different caste from North India. And her youngest son married a foreigner, and her daughter married a familial Brahmin, but from the wrong caste. She married an Iyengar instead of an Aiyar which was actually the worst thing you could do, because of a familial rivalry.
Everyone married outside of the circumscribed boundaries. So, in India, we already rank as very unusual. People would ask us “where are you from?” and I have to go into where my mother is from and where my father is from, and that’s rare. So I have a pan-Indian family, which is like a microcosm of a more global family. And I have one sibling, who studied abroad for university, and he actually married a German woman, and ended up living in the United States.
So I do think it’s a process of expanding your identity that has kind of continued with my family. When you diversify you add rather than subtract.
Third culture kids: Identity without place
IH: I read once that the so-called “third culture kids” are like water lilies. They have this beautiful breadth to them, but no depth. Would you relate to that at all or do you think this is a misconception?
I think in my case it’s very different because even though I have all this diversity in my background, I was in Delhi all through school and did my first university degree there. I had a remarkable amount of stability and place-based identity.
I think what happens with third culture kids, in the sense of my children, is that their identity gets loosened from geography. So when you are saying they don’t have depth, what you are saying is that they don’t have a place as a major marker for their identity. When you ask them where they are from, that’s the wrong question, because from implies place, or geography, and they don’t feel that they have that. They feel like they are from their family. They are not from Spain, they are not from China. They are not from anywhere else.
There was a lot of confusion initially. And I remember when we were in Jakarta. And my son used to go to international school, they used to have these international assemblies where they would play the national anthem from different countries and the children had to stand up depending on where they were from. And my son started to stand up with the Chinese national anthem. He said that he was born in China so that was where he was from. And people would say “that’s not where you’re from”.
And he would come back to me and ask, “what do they mean when they ask where I am from?”. What does that question even mean? And it was interesting to tap into that word “from” -- what is it people want to know when they ask it? I think in multicultural places like in the UK, people are asked that question, and if they answer “I’m from Sussex”, they will be pressed with “no, where are you really from?” There is something people are trying to get at when they ask that question, and that has confounded my children a lot.
And I think they’ve learnt to find the correct answer, which is “my mother is from India, my father is from Spain”. But in fact, my husband was not from one particular city in Spain, and he left for the UK at 14 and didn’t return to Spain until he was 40, so all of us are quite dispersed, especially my kids. However, I don’t think that makes them shallow.
I used to think that perhaps, you know, lacking that sense of place, meant that you could opt out of the value system of that place, or at least that you were not bound by the obligations of that particular community and that in a sense, that almost made you a bit like kind of a floating up in the air, too privileged and not really, you know, grounded on this Earth, because there are so few people who can actually claim that.
And to an extent that’s very true, they are very privileged, and I want to make them cognisant of that privilege as a mother, and that is something that both of us parents are trying to do.
But I also realized that you know your main sense of identity does not necessarily have to be place-based. You can have your main sense of identity as a set of values rather than a place. You can have your identity as a reader of certain kinds of books. There are lovers of certain kinds of sports, believers of justice, believers in plurality. There is a whole range of values that we represent as a family. Their identity is rooted in their family that is kind of like a mobile home. So their roots are in their family. And it's hard because when you’re in a family, your roots are in a country, that country is storied, that country has history that goes quite deep. And our family has almost replaced country as a place where those roots have to grow. And that is a hard ask.
I do worry about it sometimes. I'm not saying that I'm 100% confident that this is not going to lead in the future to a lot of therapy that I will have to foot the bills for.
I hope that our family is patient enough to give them those roots and that they can feel a sense of identity despite the fact that that sense of identity is not tied to a place but rather the values of our family.
Everywhere is a wonderful place
IH: I want to talk a little bit more about values. How do you pick and choose your values as you are creating this fictive country for you and your family?
PA: My children have given me the answer to that question many times. When I ask them how they feel, they say they feel they are from this world. And from very ancient times you have citizen philosophers who have spoken about the whole world being home to the truly enlightened person.
And I think, from a very young age, my kids have had the idea that everywhere is a wonderful place as long as you have the eyes to see it. And I think that nationalisms, and this idea that “my place is better than your place, my tribe is better than your tribe, my race is better than your race, my religion is better than your religion”. I think that when we really try to form our own experiences and our own empirical wandering tabula, we realise that this is nonsense. And actually there is no place on Earth that is not wonderful. And that what you’ve got to do is see it for what it is rather than constantly comparing it to what it is not, which is what I think a lot of other travellers tend to do.
So, you know, when you live in Indonesia you don’t say “oh, it is not like in Europe, where the plumbing works and the air is clean” instead of looking at how interesting it is, in terms of the incredible diversity that it has, how kind the people are, how it is trying to marry Islamic orthodoxy with being a republic and a democracy.
Everything is fascinating on its own terms. So it’s very much about trying to pull down these boundaries and see us as a whole as human beings and as finding a sense of belonging and a sense of connection to all of these wonderful places.
The kids are alright
IH: Another point of comparison between your experiences and your children's is that how we consume information about the world is changing. Do you have any fears about how this might affect your children and how do you help them navigate these technological shifts?
PA: So that’s a universal issue for parents and people: how we mediate our lives through technology. And I think very quickly we are going to see a situation where we are essentially cyborgs. And the word cyborg conjures up images of Frankenstein or something monstrous. But if you think of how you and I are communicating, it’s completely mediated through technology. And we’re going to see smaller and smaller technologies and I think very soon we’ll have implants in our bodies, which will allow us to interact with that media through thought process, or voice controlled or whatever. Now is that a terrible thing? Is that the end of the human race? I’m not sure, we see moral panics around all kinds of technologies, which have in fact been shattered.
I mean we know about how the printing press completely overthrew social structures and the ways in which society was formed. We’ve seen how the horse stirrup completely changed the course of history in how it allowed Genghis Khan to go around conquering the world. And it's quite hilarious if you look at writing in the 1930s about how radio was going to make all children zombies because they would be addicted to radio programming and be completely unable to concentrate on their school work. And 17th Century writing about the novel and how women would not be able to do housework because they would be too busy reading romance novels.
So when we see people worrying about children spending too much time on video games or YouTube, and we think “this is something terrible,” I tend to think they are actually learning a lot of information. The amount of information, the amount of knowledge and savvy the youth today has compared to when I was a teenager -- there’s no comparison.
The amount of Greek myths they know about, what’s happening with the Appalachian tribes and so on. Their access to information is fast and children are often very curious. And if you marry that curiosity and access to information, it’s amazing. And I see that in my kids. They basically know more about everything than me.
And of course, sometimes the things you read on the internet are wrong, but I try very hard to give them tools to understand that. And I think that generation is far more capable of doing that than older people who tend to get very easily fooled. My kids are actually very skeptical, they don’t take things at face value just because they’ve read it on the internet. They’re a very savvy generation.
But I do worry about the lack of human interactions. The fact that children can get on to these technologies and base their communities with their friends around that. There’s something very pacifying about that. And so I try to encourage as much time away from technologies, without discouraging them from using it either.
The world is about trade offs
IH: I like your humility when it comes to comparing your children’s saviness on the internet to your own. Not everyone is capable of acknowledging this gap in understanding…
PA: Well, you know what’s really interesting? From the printing press until now, what was really prized is literacy and writing and handwriting. Calligraphy was a mark of a really well educated person in many cultures. And you and I as journalists, we put so much emphasis on reading and on literature. And what we are seeing now, is that kids are just really going back to an oral kind of culture.
They like to listen, and that’s why podcasts are so important. So that emphasis we had on writing and spelling and all that, it’s just not important to them, and in some ways, so what? Orality is very powerful as well. I remember reading Socrates on writing, and he said that writing was going to be this terrible thing, because now people wouldn’t be able to remember anything. And it’s true, we probably lost a lot of memory because traditionally you would have stories that were told to generations. And there was a loss of memory. But there is a loss of everything.
We don’t remember the losses that came with literacy. And, what did that mean? Did that make us somehow less man? I don’t think so. We evolved in many different ways that we couldn’t have without literacy. And I think that we will do the same with these new technologies, we will evolve in incredibly interesting ways going forward.
And there are already some losses. Like letter writing, for example, I get quite nostalgic about that. But at the same time we can get in touch with so many different people on a daily basis. So you lose things and you gain things. But it goes back to what I was saying before about every place having something new to offer, something wonderful, even though there’s a trade off. I do think the world is about trade offs, and becoming comfortable with those trade offs is important.
Change and ambivalence
IH: On the subject of losses, let’s go back to what you were saying before about the rapid change Beijing has experienced in the last twenty years. The disappearing hutongs, the rising structures and all that. How do you feel about those losses?
PA: I think my generation particularly, we are prone to nostalgia. So just as I have nostalgia for the good old letter writing days, I also have nostalgia for Beijing at the time that I was there, which is no longer there. The problem with China’s changes is that it was very abrupt, very sudden. And you see those changes everywhere around the world but they happened in a more evolutionary, gradual way. So it can be very disconcerting when it happens almost overnight, which was essentially what was happening.
It was especially disconcerting because architecture is so deeply connected to human and social geography. So the relationships between people for example in a hutong are going to be very different from the relationships between people in a highrise building. You don’t see them sitting around and gossiping and so on. So it transforms not just the physicality but also the sociality and the real nature of a city. So in some ways I feel nostalgic for that. But then, on the other hand, I’ve also spoken to people who lived in the hutongs and they were very happy to move into high rise buildings and have their own toilets and the hygiene and so on.
It’s easy to put a gloss on it as a foreigner who doesn’t have real skin in the game. But I think it’s complex in the sense that people who grew up in the hutongs did have ambivalent feelings about it in that they will miss the community aspect but they will like the new apartments.
On the other hand, China has gone from being a place that at least in the early 2000s was opening, to a place that’s closing. And I think that is sad. What was wonderful about China at the time that I was there was that every year it was getting more integrated, and people were willing to travel more, and see the world in a more complex way. And I think that that space has been shutting down under Xi Jinping. It’s just this gradual disconnection from the rest of the world. Which is sad.
Worrying purifying tendencies
IH: You’ve also written about an increasing closed-mindedness in Indian politics. Would you say the trend you are observing in China is similar to the one you observe in India, and globally, perhaps? How do you understand these trends?
PA: I think globally it’s been a reaction to many things. You know, the highlight of globalisation was really in the 1990s. And I think this millennium has seen a lot of the return of tribalism and the return of nationalisms and the return of the national strongman. We’ve seen it in Turkey, we’ve seen it in the United States, we’ve seen it all over South America, and we’ve seen it in China and India very much. So where the emphasis is on a national narrative on discovering a past glory of purity and against the idea of admixture, against the idea of syncretism and against the idea of humanism.
And in India in particular that’s very sad because, unlike most European countries, we were not a nation state. We were based not on the idea of one language or one religion or one ethnicity, we were a multi- ethnic, multi- religious, multi- linguistic state that many Europeans thought was bound to fail because of this multiplicity.
And after the 1960s India was told “you will balkanise because you make no sense as a nation”. But I was always very proud of how we were testament to the fact that you didn’t need these sorts of exclusions and these paroxysms of genetic cleansing which we saw in Europe during the Second World War and the First World War where nations were put into these tiny boxes. We showed that you could have these messy diverse places that still have political units.
But I do think that what we’ve been seeing in the last two decades has been discouraging, and in fact there seems to be a kind of activism that is deep rooted in a lot of societies around the world. And this harking back to a sense of history that “we were pure before there were admixtures” and this sense of wanting to return to that.
And in India, there is a sense at the moment that “we didn’t just suffer British rule as Colonial rule for 150 years, but that before that, for 700 years we suffered Islamic rule as Colonial rule”. That was not the discourse at all that I was brought up with, which was that the Islamic group were seen as people who had been indiginised and domesticated and were as Indian as anybody else. And they were, because most of the Muslims today in India are converts, they are Indians, they are not Uzbekis or whatever.
But this idea that Islam is this foreign basilisk that has infected them, and all that, it contradicts the whole idea of India, which was that it was not going to be a Pakistan, which was based on the European idea of a single language and a single religion. India was a rejection of that.
I think not we are very much seeing a movement towards the development of an India as a Hindu Pakistan, or at least that desire is strong among a large section of people in the country. And it’s not just confined to India, we are seeing populist, purifying tendencies around the world, as I mentioned at the beginning.
What’s in a mango?
IH: From the perspective of a mother coming from this pluralistic background, what do you think is the antidote to all this?
PA: I think by living a varied life. I know I am speaking from a position of privilege. I sometimes hesitate to say this because obviously, I can’t just give this advice to anyone. You know: travel the world, learn many languages, eat Japanese food on the weekends. Because this is a world of privilege. I think the reality for many people is that borders are very clear and that travel is not that easy. Visas are not that easy. So you know, my boys do live in this space of privilege and I want to make them aware of that privilege and to be able to use that privilege to affect change and be the change that you want to see in the world.
In general, I think the more you can expose yourself to differences, the more you are going to realise that despite these differences, that there are fundamental points of unity amongst all human beings. Like I was saying, we belong to this world.
And you will see that: For example, when an Indian goes to China, which is at the moment enemy number one, they will see how the Chinese address each other in a way that is almost identical to the way we do: Strangers call each other auntie, uncle, son, niece, grandmother, they don’t say Mr. this or Mrs. that. This familial way of addressing strangers is common in Japan, China and India, three countries that think they are very different, but when you notice things like this, you will find similarities everywhere.
We were in Greece recently, and they gave me a dessert, called Halva. And Halva is one of the most common desserts in India. So, we think of Halva as Indian, but suddenly you also see it eaten by Greek people. And you realise how we are all so bound by threads of ideas and travel and cultures. And all of these soldiers and traders and pilgrims have been active for hundreds and hundreds of years. So we have all been bound together in a global jigsaw, which is what my Substack is about.
You know, in India, the most famous variety of mangoes - Indians are very nationalistic about their mangoes. “We love our mangos, they’re the best mangoes in the world. No other mango is as good!”.
And of all the different varieties of mangoes we have, the best one is called the Alphonso, a Portuguese mango that was planted in Goa. So if you just dig a little bit behind anything that people get nationalistic about, you realise these global connections.
So I do really feel that it’s about seeing the world as a jigsaw puzzle and fitting all these different pieces together. We work because we fit together. And that is the planet Earth.
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