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July 30, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright July 30, 2008. Used by permission.


After reading a short excerpt from Pallavi Aiyar‘s new book, Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China, at, we wanted to ask her a few questions about her experience as a journalist and writer working in China (Danwei has also postedan interview with Aiyar, asking for her insights on the relationship of and comparisons between China and India; and additional reviews of the book have been posted at the WSJ China Blog and The International Herald Tribune). Here are her answers to our questions, followed by a short excerpt from the book.Smoke and Mirrors can be purchased at this website, and, according to Amazon, will be available in the US in September.

China Beat: Did you expect to end up spending as long a stretch of time in China as you have?

Pallavi Aiyar: Not at all. I came to China only reluctantly, following my then boyfriend who was a Sinophile. I was at the time, a typical middle-class Indian with an Anglophone education so that “abroad’ and “the UK/US” were almost synonymous for me. China might have been next door to India geographically but conceptually it was a black hole. I spent my first year in the country teaching something called “English journalism” (which turned out to be mostly English) to students at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute while learning Chinese myself. At the end of the year, I felt it would be a waste not to stay for at least another year and recoup the investment of that first year in China. And so it went, year-after-year. With hindsight, moving to China was the best decision of my life. Not only did the boyfriend become my husband, but the timing was right and ripe for an Indian in China. Bilaterally, relations began heating up and internationally as well the China story increasingly became the China-India story. An almost bottomless appetite for China news was to evolve south of the Himalayas and I was one of the very few people in a position to sate that hunger. Given that China and India together account for almost 2.5 billion people, the fact that when I first began writing from Beijing I was one of only two Indian correspondents in the country is a profound comment on how disconnected these two neighbors were. There are now four of us Indian correspondents in China (compared to some 125 American journalists), but I remain the only Mandarin-speaking one.