What we learnt about Spain from a taxi driver

You may know this feeling: that our deepest insights into the world come from talking to a taxi driver. A colleague uses this method to predict election results, and is not wrong more often than right. I use this method to find out a little about any new country I visit.

This is hard in Spain, because most Spaniards do not speak English. In Madrid we had the luck to get into a taxi driven by a Nigerian emigre. He said he loved Spain because of the weather and the attitude of people even though it was not a rich country. The Family raised a questioning eyebrow at me. I shrugged a silent "No idea" in reply.

Later I looked at the web. Spain, like most of the rest of the world has been in financial shock in the last few years. It is certainly not in the world’s top ten economies. But is it rich or poor? I guess one way to judge is by the purchasing power of people. The taxi driver we talked to visited Nigeria every year, and had taken a vacation in Japan and India. So he was better off than any taxi driver we had met in China or India.

I decided to look at another measure: the per capita gross domestic product. This is the average economic output of each person in the country. Of course this is a very indirect way to measure the wealth of people, but it is indicative in some ways. By this count the USA tops the world with about 55,120 USD per head in 2017. The triad of UK, Canada and Germany follow closely, with 43815, 41098 and 40133 USD per head. France, Japan and Italy are also rich by this measure with 35,566, 34,715 and 29,605 USD per head. Of the world’s top ten economies, Brazil and China are distinctly middle-income, with per capita GDP of 8,508 and 7,944 USD respectively. India, with 1,490 USD per head is the poorest of the top ten economies of the world.

I could not find this year’s data for Spain. I had to go back to data from two years ago. Then Spain had a per capita GDP of 25,752 USD. This could make it poor by European standards, but definitely one of the richest in the world. Score one more insight due to chatting with a taxi driver.

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A cat that catches the mouse

As part of my education on China I’m trying to read something other than history and travel books. There is a lot of modern literature, and there are movies. And there is also interesting journalism. Several years back I’d read a book Pallavi Aiyar about her time as China bureau chief for the Chennai newspaper “The Hindu”. I must read it again.

Two books which I read recently talk of China from completely different perspectives, but are strangely similar. The first is “China Road”, a book by a reporter, Rob Gifford, who travels from Shanghai to Korgaz (a border crossing to Kazakhstan) a large part of it along the old silk route. The style is the modern western travel book: a little bit of a drifter, a little of the old orientalist adventurer, and very much the commentator from the first world. The second book is “China in Ten Words”, written by Yu Hua, a Chinese author still living in China. Again, this is a familiar voice, of an older person growing up within a culture which has changed unrecognizably within a lifetime: commenting on the changes and trying to identify the constants in the culture.

When China was going through the Cultural Revolution, India was not doing too well either. There was a shortage of food in both countries, but middle-class Indians generally thought they were better off. Now, two generations later, the question that the middle class asks is how we can do as well as China. There are hard facts behind this. In 1980 the average per capita income of a person in China was 30% less than in India; in 2013 it was 350% more. There is a throwaway discussion in Gifford’s book which says that the legitimacy of the Chinese political system depends on continuing improvements in people’s lifestyles, whereas India’s democratic system only means that non-functional governments get removed in an election, even if the alternative is no better. This is an explanation which I have read from Pallavi Aiyar too, so I wonder whether this is folk wisdom among foreign journaists in China.

Whatever.

India and China seem to have arrived at roughly similar circumstances in two completely different ways. In fact, many of the stories in these two books seem like they could have come from India. Yu Hua uses four words to anchor his discussion of modern China: disparity, grassroots, copycat and bamboozle. These are words that the Indian press could very well use to describe aspects of today’s India.

Did the cultural revolution destroy the old China? This is never stated, but implied in both books. I wonder. I was once taken to dinner by my Chinese colleagues at a restaurant built to impress. It was a space built like a hangar to hold a couple of Dreamliners. I saw two wedding dinners in progress. We were led deep into this space and into a private room for our banquet. Sometime during the dinner I asked one of my hosts about the calligraphy carved into one of the walls. There was consultation between several people before the words were translated. I was told that this was not easy to read because the characters were in an older style. It was a classical poem copied out by Mao Zedong.

A cat that catches the mouse is a good cat, no matter whether it is black or white. (Deng Xiaoping)

The Cultural Revolution certainly changed China enough that today’s nation could emerge. In some sense it was a fast track to modernity, but at the expense of one lost generation. The Indian experiment is certainly not on any kind of a fast track, but who knows where it will lead in a couple of generations? Will the Indians of the 2050s look back on the past four generations as lost? The answer may well determine the staying power of Bollywood: going by Kishore Kumar’s songs or the remakes of Amitabh Bachchan movies, the generations of the 1960s and 70s were not lost.