The first thing you notice when you come to India after China

India and China are so fundamentally different in so many ways that it is amazing that Americans often talk about them as a twinned pair. The Rising Asian Titans, The Billion-Strong Powers, the countries whose people will take our jobs, etc. They’re similar only in the grossest ways - big populations, economies that are rapidly growing, many many citizens who are poor and a few who are very rich.

As for the differences, there are a zillion for later exploration, and one that is stunning the instant you set foot in India (where I have been before, but not recently). The difference is, children
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This photo, like those below, comes just now from the waterfront in Mumbai (nee Bombay). The instant my wife and I walked around town we noticed how different the role of children was here from any place we had seen in urban China.

In Shanghai — or Beijing, or Shenyang, or Hangzhou — children not in school are seen in the presence of one and usually more adult supervisors: parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles, people from the neighborhood. But in this one afternoon in Mumbai we came across many scenes of what can only be called roving bands of kids. They were playing cricket in dirt lots. They were throwing stones. They were playing tag. They were running around without watchful adults immediately in sight.

I know the policy background here (one-child mandate in China), and the statistical manifestations of the difference. China’s median age is in the mid-30s; India’s, the mid-20s. India’s population growth rate is about three times faster than China’s. China has an aging-population problem; India has a plain old population problem, etc. But those don’t prepare you for the way a country full of children looks, in contrast to China. It looks like this:
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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