Sikh Lumberjacks in Italy: Pallavi Aiyar’s New Old World

Pallavi Aiyar is in a unique position to view Europe today. Born in India, she spent ten years living in Beijing before moving to Brussels in 2009, Spanish husband and toddler in tow. Because she's a journalist, she knows her way around a global climate conference and she can delve into macroeconomic studies of the post-reunification German economy. Because she's a Chinese-speaking Indian, she has a keen eye for the lives of Asian immigrants living in Europe. 

The latest book from this veteran journalist is New Old World: An Indian Journalist Discovers the Changing Face of Europe. The continent wasn't having its finest hour when she arrived. Europe was struggling with repeated debt crises, rising tensions over immigration, and decreasing influence abroad. Europe has clean air and water going for it, Aiyar finds, but its Sundays with closed shops are numbered. 

Aiyar identifies two primary causes of Europe's troubles. The "labor elite," as she calls it, fights every effort to reform entitlements. European workers have forgotten how to work hard. Asian immigrants, meanwhile, have not. European politicians can't provide effective leadership because of endless deliberations and consensus rule. If there's one issue Europeans can claim international leadership, it's the environment, but Aiyar isn't impressed. She has particularly stinging things to say about European negotiators at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009. "The environmental ethics of people in the West," she fumes, "was born of privilege and prosperity and the environmental destruction in which these were rooted."

And then there are the Chinese. Indians have worked their way into the nooks and crannies of the Eurozone, but the Chinese walk around like they own the place. Which, increasingly, they do. Aiyar follows a group of Chinese schoolchildren on a trip to Austria, which they regard as little more than a giant Swarovska outlet. Later she pays a visit to a Chinese owner of a wine châteaux in a small village in Bordeaux. Even Aiyar is startled to learn he isn't the only Chinese owner of a local estate. Still, they're vin de pays estates and therefore not a threat to the Bordeaux order. No Chinese will ever buy a Premier Cru estate, a French wine official tells Aiyar.

Aiyar regards China as the anti-Europe, an economic juggernaut pushing European companies out of the world market. Old New World was completed before the recent Chinese stock market gyrations. China's seven percent annual economic growth doesn't look any more sustainable than the European welfare state. Sitting atop a wobbly economy and a restive populace, China's political order suddenly looks more fragile than Europe's. Aiyar couldn't have foreseen these developments, of course, but one can draw other points of disagreement. I certainly had some. I too was baffled by the European practice of weighing and pricing vegetables before the checkout line, but I dismissed it as a local custom to which one would have to adapt, not a sign of Europe's economic decline. Aiyar bristles at the paternalism of German mittelstands, but smiles upon the paternalism of Indian diamond merchants. She accepts, uncritically, an Indian executive's explanation for why Indian software companies are having a hard time capturing much of Europe's IT outsourcing business. "In Europe, the social sector is very sensitive," she is told. Maybe that's what Indian outsourcing companies tell themselves–that a recalcitrant "European mindset" prevents them from gaining a larger share, but there are reasons why India is capturing less and less of the global IT outsourcing business. These days there's a lot more global competition and Indian companies have been reluctant to adopt more collaborative methods of software development becoming popular in Europe and the U.S. Indian software developers aren't adapting to the changing social conditions of software development.

If her argument that Europe is losing ground to more dynamic economies in China and India gets tendentious at times, it's hard to dispute her main point that Europe is getting more diverse–or rather, is regaining some of its former diversity. Thanks to ethnic cleansing and other migrations brought about by two world wars, almost every ethnicity in Europe created a cozy nation-state for itself. However, the homogeneous European nation of the post-war era is an historical anomaly. European nations were diverse before 1914, and they're becoming diverse again.

Aiyar is an excellent tour guide of a (once again) multi-cultural Europe. She introduces us to a Sikh lumberjack in Italy and a third-generation Moroccan-Belgian woman who wears flowers in her hijab–and her Belgian husband who converted to Islam. We learn that Germany is the China of Europe, and that India and the E.U. have more in common than either would like to admit. Even though this summer's refugee crisis occurred after Aiyar wrote her book, Old New World details the conditions under which the crisis intensified. I wish she had spoken to some of the European workers she criticizes so frequently, but her book is indispensable because of all the other conversations she has. 

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