South Asia


NOTE: This is not a normal opinion piece, since I’m not actually advocating for one point of view over another. Rather, this is just speculation, and musing like this seems more like providing a perspective than just impartially imparting information.

South Asia, or the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and sometimes Afghanistan), is usually included with East Asia in academic discussion, business strategies, bureaucratic organization, racial categorization, and journalistic parlance. Bowing to common practice, I’ve categorized it as such on this site. But is this fair?

South Asia has as much in common with West Asia as it does East Asia. Geographically, the region is defined by its mountainous borders, but in the west, the mountains are lower and taper off before meeting the sea. Also, there is a famous, much-used pass over the Hindu Kush (the mountains). On the other hand, East Asia is separated by the Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountain range. Contact over these peaks is much harder, and there isn’t much of a gap between the Himalayas and the sea.

This has meant that historically, people came to South Asia from the west more than the east. The Aryans — the main racial group in the area — originally invaded from the west. Alexandros the Great invaded from the west. The Kushans invaded from the west. The Ghaznavids invaded from the west. The Mongols, despite being situated to the north and east of South Asia, invaded from the west too. The Mughals invaded from the west. And so on. The only invasion South Asia suffered from the east was the Ahoms in the 1200s — and they only conquered Assam, a small corner of the region.

West Asia’s great philosophical tradition is Islam, which came to South Asia thanks to all those invasions and is now the second-largest religion there. East Asia’s great philosophical traditions are Buddhism and Confucianism. The former originated in South Asia but is now very minor there, while the latter has negligible influence.

South Asia’s main languages are Hindi and Urdu (which are sometimes lumped together as “Hindustani”). They (especially Urdu) share much of their vocabulary with Persian and Arabic — West Asian languages.

Artistically, there is much in common between West and South Asia. Persian styles of painting and calligraphy influenced South Asian art beginning in the Middle Ages. South Asian sculpture is thought to be influenced by Greek artistic standards practiced in Afghanistan long ago. Much of South Asian architecture — domes, minarets, imposing gateways and courtyards — is imported from Persia as well. The Taj Mahal, India’s most recognizable landmark, has more in common with Persian buildings than many others in India. South Asian musical instruments descend from West Asian cousins.

In the culinary sphere, South Asian food shares features with stuff cooked up in West Asian kitchens. Bread is the staple food, and it’s usually flat, like breads in West Asia. Dairy is ubiquitous (which is why cows are so revered in India) — butter, milk, yoghurt, ghi (clarified butter), panir (a type of cottage cheese) — while traditionally, at least, it’s absent in East Asia. South Asian sweets like halva, kulfi and faluda have roots or counterparts in West Asia.

Racially, South Asia’s people much more closely resemble Persians and Turks than Asians further east. There are broad variations across the region, of course, but Aryans (especially Pashtuns, an ethnic group in Afghanistan and Pakistan) are related to Iranians. The Mongoloid facial features of East Asia are rare in South Asia apart from the Himalayas. South Asians also dress much more like West Asians than East Asians: men sometimes wear turbans, women sometimes wear veils. The salvar kamiz, a commonly worn tunic-and-trouser combo, originates from West Asia. Anecdotally, I have noticed foreigners tend to confuse South Asians and West Asians, but rarely with East Asians.

Given the range of similarities between South and West Asia, why is South Asia even lumped in with East Asia at all? There are similarities in this respect too. As mentioned above, Buddhism was an Indian import, and Hinduism was once widely followed in Southeast Asia too. In ancient times, East Asians would journey west to study religion in South Asian universities — this is the basis of one of China’s most famous stories, Journey to the West. There is a theory that Indian theater influenced China’s. The Chola Empire in south India once conquered Sumatra. The historical experience of colonialism unites South and Southeast Asia more than West Asia (although Northeast Asia had a substantially different experience). Although they vary dramatically from country to country, pagodas, that classic feature of East Asian architecture, evolved from South Asian stupas. Curry, the hallmark of South Asian cuisine, is also eaten in Southeast Asia and Japan. Rice is popular pretty much everywhere (although again, South Asian varieties are quite different from East Asia’s). Myanmar, thanks mostly to Britain uniting it with India in colonial times, has a lot of South Asian influences (food, clothing, Muslim minority communities).

It’s fair to say that South and East Asia have a lot in common, but notice how many qualifications I included, and it’s hard to deny that West Asia had at least as much influence. Another important factor to consider is that basically all of the influences flowed from South Asia east, and not the other way around. Chinese culture has had little impact on India, as I noted in an earlier post.

While I am unsure why South Asia is often lumped in with East Asia instead of West Asia, I have a theory. The term “East Asia” (or often just “Asia”) is really just a replacement for an earlier Western term: “the Far East.” From a West European perspective, South Asia was already pretty far east, so everything from that point onward was labeled the Far East. Combine that with the imperial linkages Britain established between South Asia (then just “India”) and its colonies in Southeast Asia, like the annexation of Burma and the settlement of big Indian communities in Malaya, and you can see why in the British mind, South Asia’s connection with East Asia was emphasized over its connection with West Asia.

In addition, I get the feeling that South Asians and those that study South Asia aren’t too eager to see the region merged with West Asia. Like it or not, West Asia has a bad reputation now, thanks to its unending violence, religious fanaticism, and rigid dictatorships. Politically, it’s hard to draw a connection between West and South Asia (except maybe Pakistan, thanks to the heavy military and Saudi influence on its government and society). India has been one of Asia’s most stable and successful democracies, and political scientists are puzzled trying to draw comparisons between it and anywhere else sometimes.

Most likely, South Asians would say that their region isn’t part of any other and that they are unique. There is some truth to this, and I would argue that anyone who tries to lump it in with another area is being a little lazy or reductionist. South Asia — India especially — is strongly defined by Hinduism, a native philosophical tradition. Linkages with West Asia are less strong in South India and Sri Lanka, which have tended to move to their own rhythms. South Asian economies resemble neither the development models of East Asia nor those of West Asia. South Asians are much more likely to look towards neighbors in the region or the West than to either West or East Asia. But consideration of the evidence suggests that South Asian connections with West Asia should be given some more thought at least.




Image source: Daily Kos


At the end of every year, the American newsweekly TIME Magazine designates someone as “Man of the Year” — the person who, for good or for ill, most influenced the course of events in the past year. For the most part, it is an unreliable indicator of the year’s main mover and shaker, but it’s still a fun tradition, and I’ve always enjoyed predicting (or at least speculating) on who the latest choice will be. So here are my choices for 2016’s Man of the Year.

First, let’s see who TIME chose as its runners-up. I find Hillary Clinton to be a weak choice; she lost the American presidential election, after all. America may be the world’s most important country, but it’s not THAT important. It is hard to exercise influence when you’ve lost the election. Perhaps you could argue that her hard-fought campaign and popular vote victory inspired politically minded women everywhere, but it’s hard to wield influence when you lose.

Hackers were certainly influential this year, as data ransacking of the American Democratic party, theft from the Russian central bank, and data wiping at Saudi Arabia’s aviation regulator made clear. Cybersecurity is a growing concern for technologically adept governments and businesses and its specter will only expand. But I prefer identifying actual people, not broad, vague (and in this case, totally anonymous) groups.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is actually a good choice. Turkey has become more and more geopolitically vital, with both the EU and Russia trying to court it as the key link between Europe and war-torn West Asia. At the same time, Erdoğan has become more assertive and powerful within his country, especially after a failed coup on July 15 was followed up by a massive and deep purge of suspected dissidents. I don’t think his influence extends far enough in regional affairs to be a top contender for Man of the Year, though.

The CRISPR pioneers are an interesting choice in the science field. The new technique of CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), a form of genetic engineering, promises to have wide-ranging effects in crop nutritional enhancement, genetic mutations, and most of all, in fighting tough conditions like cancer. The pioneers of this method (namely, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier) might be worthy of the Women of the Year honor. But it’s hard to tell at this early stage how much impact CRISPR will have; the crucial trials to see whether it can cure cancer take place next year.

It’s hard to gauge the influence of figures like Beyoncé. On the one hand, it’s clear that she’s an enormously famous and influential singer, and one with an international fanbase. But the main reason TIME honored her this year is her passionate activism for feminism and improved race relations, and the latter is primarily an American issue. I’m also not convinced that she’s had a lot of influence in these fields; it seems more like wishful thinking on TIME’s part. Most of the people she has reached probably already believe her messages anyway. The smash success of her album Lemonade this year definitely makes her one of the main figures in the cultural field, though.

And now for some other possible candidates:

Juan Manuel Santos probably deserves recognition as one of the most influential people of the year for bringing Colombia’s 50-year civil war to an end. His accord may have been rejected by voters in a plebiscite in October, but it still earned him a well-earned Nobel Peace Prize, and a peace agreement with the FARC rebels was eventually reached anyway. Still, his influence is mostly local.
Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, was my pick for Woman of the Year last year, but this year she didn’t make many headlines. Instead, she found herself on the defensive against a growing backlash within Germany against welcoming refugees and keeping the borders often and against growing discontent in Europe with sanctions against Russia.
Bashar al-Assad, the dictator of Syria, continued to make headlines with his cruel and destructive war, the world’s worst. It has an impact beyond its region but Assad is no longer the key factor here.
Xi Jinping, the dictator of China, consolidated his control this year, but made no headline-making moves. China, in general, is a difficult country for these sorts of exercises; it is extremely important and influential, but its leadership is mostly collective and its influence is incremental. A Chinese leader could be Man of the Year just about any year, because their decisions (especially economic and monetary ones) have enormous global impact.
Rodrigo Duterte is another possible candidate. The new president of the Philippines has rattled East Asia with his unpredictability and realignment away from America and towards China. He could herald a turning of the tide in East Asia away from the American security umbrella and socioeconomic model (and away from democratic norms too). He is probably #4 this year given how this development would probably not have happened without him (well, at least not this fast). But his influence is still mostly regional, and it’s still unclear how much weight his words actually carry (at least in foreign policy).

The overriding theme in global affairs this year is a noticeable, transnational turn away from boring but pragmatic liberal democratic politics and toward angry, usually right-wing, protectionist and nationalist populism. Therefore it is worth keeping in mind which figures are doing the most to drive this trend. They are the ones I chose for 2016’s Men of the Year.


The first of two big political earthquakes this year with global repercussions was Brexit — the British exit from the EU. Even though it hasn’t even happened yet, the notion that such an important European country would leave the institution that binds the continent together rattled elites across the West. The British economy is suffering, British politics are in a state of uncertainty, and the leaders of the EU and its major countries are nervous about a precedent being set. While I didn’t cover it for this blog, it was undeniably a Big Deal. Although the referendum was a collective effort, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, was the face of the Brexit campaign. His victory even sparked predictions that he would take David Cameron’s place as British prime minister. That didn’t happen, but he is Foreign Secretary and still an influential figure in the Brexit negotiations. He deserves credit for the vote and its impact on global politics. (The other major figure would be Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party until very recently.)


Putin’s back, baby! For the third time in a row, he makes my list. Despite all that the West has done to squeeze the Russian economy and elite, it remains an influential global player and wild card in geopolitics. Putin continued to rely on his preferred covert ops methods — hacking, espionage, pro-Russian media, funding for divisive politicians — to aggravate the growing cracks within the transatlantic alliance. Meanwhile, he continued to leverage Russia’s considerable hard power to punish Syrian rebels and the innocent Syrian people to make Russia look big and strong. Ukraine remains tied down by the war in the Donbass and Putin’s approval rating remains above 80%. A mostly unsuccessful effort this month by Japan to coax Putin into territorial and economic concessions proved once again that Putin is a man with a lot of leverage. His crowning achievement may have been getting Donald Trump, a candidate few took seriously, elected president of the United States. With the West in disarray and China more or less friendly, Russia is in good shape — and it’s mostly thanks to Putin.


Last year I wrote “I expect next year we’ll see Hillary Clinton on TIME’s cover as she takes the mantle of world’s most powerful and influential woman.” During the year I began to doubt this due to the continuing media fixation with Trump. I never imagined that it wouldn’t be true because Clinton would actually lose.

Trump’s election, as you have probably guessed, was the second big political earthquake of the year. It’s a development that came completely out of nowhere: in 2014 no one would’ve predicted this, and even in 2015 his victory seemed far-fetched given that Republican (and sometimes Democratic) voters have a tendency to favor wacky candidates at the beginning. Although he’s a Republican, he upended the normal dynamics of American politics with his platform, which favors protectionism and tight border controls as well as closer relations with Russia. The usual Republican concerns — small government, Christian values, a strong military — he ignored. Democrats, of course, are repulsed by his political incorrectness.

Although right-wing populism predates Trump, he has emerged as sort of the global standard-bearer for it. Others, like Farage, Marine le Pen in France, and Frauke Petry in Germany, cheered his win and see him as an inspiration. His revisionist foreign policy, which will involve some sort of retreat from America’s position of influence worldwide, has rattled governments everywhere. His election has made 2017 very uncertain. No one quite knows what to expect from him, given how many of his statements he’s backtracked on. Although it may seem premature to name him Man of the Year when he hasn’t even taken office yet, this is TIME’s standard practice with election winners, and the strong media spotlight given the American elections means his tweets and cabinet picks have major repercussions.

I find Trump to be an arrogant, boastful, brutish, bullying, crude, hateful, ignorant, lying, obnoxious, pandering, pessimistic, petty, racist, sexist, tacky asshole whose victory fills me with shame and dread, but that does not necessarily mean he is not influential. Throughout 2016, electorates have endorsed decisions that are tantamount to national suicide: a president who encourages drug addicts to get gunned down in the street and brags about murdering them himself; a split from a union that has delivered Britain peace, prosperity and new opportunities; an accord that brings Colombia peace and reconciliation with minimal risk; a constitutional reform that would’ve given Italy a fighting chance to overcome its quarrelsome political habits. Trump’s election is just the biggest and worst in this series. 2016 has given Chinese critics of democracy a lot of ammo in their argument that popular sovereignty is a dangerous system.

Note: Despite my fixation with political figures, I do acknowledge that business, scientific, technological and even cultural figures can have widespread influence too. But in most years it’s hard to measure their influence against the years before. Ongoing developments in robotics, self-driving cars, mobile devices, and so on could shake the world much more than the likes of Putin or Trump, but it’s hard to tell at this point.


Olympics 2


When Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s showpiece city, was awarded the honor of hosting the Summer Olympics in 2009, the country erupted in euphoria. It had had a roaring decade, with a broadly popular president (Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva) overseeing sustained economic growth, poverty reduction, and a growth in international clout. Brazil had newfound aspirations to be a global power — not just in soccer, music and art, but politically and commercially. Brazil has always seen itself as a member of the First World yet felt a kinship towards countries in the Third World thanks to its geographical location, historic poverty and chronic economic problems like inflation and debt. Winning the Olympic Games was an international vote of confidence in the country and a perfect opportunity to prove that the less developed world could host the Olympics instead of the usual succession of North American, European and Northeast Asian countries.

Since then, Brazil’s international image has taken a heavy beating, as I outlined in my previous post. Its economy stagnated, then sank into depression in 2015, with GDP shrinking by almost 4% that year. A big corruption scandal involving kickbacks to construction companies by the state-owned oil firm, Petrobras, mutated into something involving 16 companies, with over 10 billion reais ($3.8 billion) laundered, and toppling President Dilma Rousseff this year (not to mention permanently tarnishing Lula’s image). Preparations for the games themselves were overshadowed by a storm of controversies and things to stress about: the Zika virus, which causes birth defects; a rise in crime and violence; the foul state of Rio’s waters; building projects running past deadlines.

Olympic Park

So how did the Games go? Based on my perspective, they were a success. Rio de Janeiro is a beautiful city with lots to see and a world-famous beach and nightlife culture that’s perfect for an international congregation of attractive young people. The Olympic Park was impressive and vast. Brazilian fans were raucous and noisy and respectful of other countries. Despite what an American Olympic swimmer claimed, no athletes were robbed. The opening and closing ceremonies were impressive spectacles, showcasing Brazilian diversity, history and culture without blowing too much money on extravaganzas. It’s fun to be surrounded by people from all corners of the world, and there were moments of joy and inspiration you’d only find at the Olympics — a North Korean pistol shooter congratulating the South Korean winner and hoping for a unified Korea; runners from America and New Zealand helping each other after a collision in the 5,000-meter race; the favela (shantytown) dweller who triumphed in juudou; the refugee team, including a Syrian-German swimmer who’d pushed a boatful of fellow refugees for 3 hours in the Aegean Sea; little countries like Azerbaijan and Jamaica trouncing bigger, better-funded competitors.

Of course, there were problems. Rio failed to clean up its bay before the Olympics, a victim of widespread flouting of its water regulations and a lack of enforcement of them. Some of the athletes’ facilities were uninhabitable. I was disappointed that the promised subway line to the Olympic Park only went part of the way there, forcing spectators to transfer to a (very efficient) bus line… and then walk another 10 minutes to the actual park. The food at the Olympics was unimpressive, to say the least, and I usually had to settle for mediocre meat-and-bread combos or tiny cheese pizzas with a single olive in the middle. Often food stands would run out, forcing spectators to eat biscoito pouvilho (puffy cassava biscuits) for lunch instead. Language barriers were a constant issue, but the volunteer army that did the heavy lifting was generally patient, polite, and helpful considering the obvious stress they were dealing with, and realistically there isn’t much you can do about language issues when so many different nationalities are gathering in 1 place.

Most of these problems are the same issues we’ve heard at every Olympics in recent decades, and every time they become insignificant once the Games actually begin and the athletic awesomeness commences. (Well, O.K., disease and crime anxieties are new.) I was fairly confident, despite the misfortune Brazil has recently experienced, that it would be the same story this time. And I think I was right. The Modern Olympics are still one of the world’s best ideas, an excellent opportunity for people from all over the world to come together in 1 place and celebrate sport, determination, and good times. Host cities put on their best face and welcome their visitors with improved infrastructure, facilities, and tourist attractions. You can watch quirky sports rarely seen in most countries (like handball or fencing) and meet people you’d seldom encounter in most countries.

That being said, I’ve noticed in recent years that anti-Olympic sentiment is growing. The scale and spectacle of the Games has grown and grown and grown to the point where it’s scarcely sustainable for much longer. The expense of the 2004 Olympics were 1 of the factors behind Greece’s economic collapse. Hosting a $12 billion sports tournament in the midst of a depression, when Rio is struggling just to pay its government employees, is frankly a bad idea. The International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s top brass make millions in paychecks, while the Games themselves are mostly staffed by hard-working volunteers paid by thanks and a song at the closing ceremonies. Hosting the Games in a developing country like Brazil exerts a terrible cost by diverting money from urgently needed education and health care investments. Walking through the Olympic Park and staring at the giant arenas and vast praças (plazas), I couldn’t help but wonder: What will Rio do with these after the Olympics? (O.K., use them for the Paralympics, the Olympics’ neglected sister, but what then?)

I firmly believe that the Olympics are a net benefit for humanity and an awe-inspiring spectacle of peace, goodwill and friendly competition. They are worth keeping for sure. But the IOC needs to take the complaints against it much more seriously. Olympic bids are getting less and less enthusiasm, with authoritarian countries hungry for glory like China and Kazakhstan doing better. The IOC needs to shoulder more of the burden of its own Games and make fewer demands of its hosts. Although designating 1 city as the permanent location of the Games might seem like a good solution, I think it would give the home team a long-term advantage, lead to a nasty fight for the honor, and ruin a lot of the Games’ appeal. But many, many more of the Olympic facilities need to be temporary structures that can be dismantled and reassembled in different cities to cut back on the waste and redundancy. Trimming the Games’ budget would also reduce the scope for corruption, which is always a problem in developing countries (and Brazil, as mentioned, is no exception).

Olympic Mascots

The Olympic mascots, Vinicius and Tom. Vinicius got a LOT more attention.

And what about Brazil? I saw mixed reactions to the Olympics. Brazilians were welcoming and good-natured about it, and cheered for their home team with gusto. But there was also widespread apathy about the Games and resentment over the waste of money. Like the World Cup in 2014, they saw it as a government strategy of offering them “bread and circuses” like the ancient Roman emperors. It was a cruel twist of fate that the 7 years since the Games were awarded have brought Brazil so low; the events in that time have made Brazilians jaded and much less excited about the Olympics or showing off to gringos.

Politically, the scene is as dire as ever. Brazil’s acting president, Michel Temer, is broadly unpopular; his (very brief) appearance at the opening ceremony was greeted with deafening boos by the smaller crowd gathered to watch in downtown Rio’s Praça Maua, and I kept seeing “FORA TEMER” (Away with Temer) signs around, including at Olympic events. Dilma has denied any wrongdoing in the Petrobras scandal and calls her suspension in May a “coup” since she was technically punished for misreporting budget numbers, a common practice. But Dilma was also broadly unpopular, and got huge protests before her suspension. Brazil is politically very polarized, with little sensible political discussion on the street level and a lot of jaded, cynical youth. There is even mounting nostalgia for the military dictatorship that kept order in Brazil from 1964 to 1985. Although Brazil has been a democracy for a while and I personally doubt a coup is imminent, it seems much less mature than its age would suggest.

The country itself, on the other hand, is great. It has a lot of potential: big, dynamic cities; a cultural affinity with the West; a thriving immigrant population; a record of overcoming daunting problems for developing countries, from agricultural productivity in the dry interior to policing in drug gang-infested favelas. The national attitude seems optimistic overall. Brazilians definitely know how to party, as epitomized by the massive celebrations in Rio during Carnaval (a mini-version of which was thrown in the closing ceremony), but they also know how to get down to work, as the thriving business district of São Paulo shows. Public transit was impressive, from the modern and efficient subways of São Paulo to the comfortable, air-conditioned buses that connect cities. And of course, the scenery is spectacular: the view from Corcovado over Rio is the best in the world, but the green coastline stretching west from Rio and the austere mountains north of it are breathtaking too.

It’s true that Brazil has a lot of problems. The favelas have been a nagging sore spot in its cities for a century, a constant reminder of the country’s inequality and the failures of its government. The crime they breed definitely keep a lot of foreigners away. Corruption is a way of life, decried in Brazilian politicians but resorted to by everyday Brazilians as well. The current depression casts a shadow over everything, and young, educated Brazilians are pondering their chances overseas. There is not much long-term planning or sense of urgency about anything, probably a result of the country’s relative isolation and freedom from problems that weigh upon other countries, like civil war, territorial disputes or crazy neighbors. The saying goes that “Brazil is the country of the future,” because of its enormous potential, global aspirations, and ultramodern designs by the likes of Oscar Niemeyer and Roberto Marx… but the saying continues “and always will be,” because people have been saying that Brazil will be a big deal for a long time now.

Rio Closing Ceremony

I’m an optimist about Brazil. Its depression will eventually go and its political crisis will be resolved. Its strengths are enduring and fundamental. Although it has plenty of poverty, it also has a lot of opportunity, and compared to the Third World it has done a better job of providing for its underclass. There’s racism, but centuries of racial intermixing has blurred the boundaries between races much more than in other countries. Its agricultural and industrial sector is internationally competitive and its diplomatic corps is formidable enough to be a force to be reckoned with if Brazil decides it wants to be a serious player in international affairs. The Olympics were a reminder of the country’s energy, creativity, and alegria (sense of joy and exuberance). Traveling to the country, I wished that more foreigners could go and experience it for themselves. Way too many still cling onto the old stereotypes that center around Rio. Who knows about Brazil’s accordion-based folk music, forró, or about São Paulo’s big Japanese community, or about the ornate and frozen-in-time mining cities in the interior?

Brazil may still have a lot of problems, and the Rio Olympics weren’t the best ones ever. But I think the IOC made the right choice in trusting Rio with the Olympics, mainly because it’s about time that the Olympics were held in South America and that another region of the world was “unlocked.” If nothing else, the Olympics focused the attention of the world on Brazil, something which isn’t always easy. Here’s hoping that Brazil and Rio will continue the momentum and finally become the “serious country” it deserves to be.