The question I get asked most about One Plus One is how do we choose our guests?
We do around forty-four interviews a year. We have a big wish-list and then lots of other fascinating names came forward too, all worthy of attention in their own way which, in our estimation, can hold the television viewer’s attention for 30 minutes. The guests are drawn from a variety of sources selected by producer Barbie Dutter and me.
This week my guest is Indian comedian Vir Das and I was lucky enough to speak to him hours after he stepped of a plane on his first ever visit to Australia. He's on his first international tour, performing in Sydney and Melbourne (May 18 - 27).
In preparation for the interview I watched Vir's hilarious Netflix show Abroad Understanding. I read widely and watched his You Tube channel, where there are some very touching videos. Every year around exam time, he does a video for school-kids. There's a worrying suicide-rate among Indian school-children because of exam pressure.
I was very interested in the movie 31st October based on the anti-Sikh protests after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Via played a serious dramatic role in that art-house film but he’s also a familiar Bollywood actor.
India has always fascinated me. In fact, it was the first country I fell for, even before China. Maybe because I grew up in colonial Hong Kong, I enjoyed books about the English view of colonial life: Heat and Dust, A Passage to India and I particularly enjoyed Sarah Lloyd’s An Indian Attachment (and later Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance).
However, on my first visit to India - when I was nineteen - I was shocked by the poverty. One day my brother and I bought some cakes in Delhi’s Connaught Place. I carried them in a box, suspended in a plastic bag. As we walked around I could feel something hitting my leg, but when I turned around in that tight sea of humanity, I couldn’t see what was knocking me. Something hit me again and this time I looked down. It was a person. A legless person. A legless, handless person whose arms finished near the elbows - in stumps. The person made eye contact with me then pointed to the plastic bag. The one holding the cakes. I handed it over immediately.
Apart from poverty I’d seen in Hong Kong (yes, there was much poverty in the seventies and early eighties) I had not experienced anything like India. And yet I loved it. It was so... alive!
Now the sub-continent is a whole new world from the place I experienced in the 1980’s.
It has 1.3 billion people but still, there are great divisions between the wealthy, the middle-class and those who dwell in slums.
A few hours before Vir arrived for the interview I went to the BBC website to see what was making news in India. Sadly, the main story was about rape and whether Indian doctor would allow a 10 year old rape victim to have an abortion. The 2012 gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey still looms large in my mind.
So, mingling in with the research I had done, these were some of the issues playing in my mind when I sat down to interview Vir. He admits he speaks from a perspective of privilege. And I interviewed a comedian for some light relief, right? But my head is still awash with more questions that I need to unravel for myself over the next few days, through books, news, discussion. Vir Das opened a door.
(Photo credits: Vir Das and Jane - Tom Hancock, Sadhu - Jane Hutcheon, Protest - Getty Images)
In China you can ask a stranger fairly personal questions and they really don't mind.
You can ask an older woman her age. You can ask someone how much he earns. And you can ask the price of big ticket items like an apartment, a car and school fees.
I had a few hours to kill before I left China earlier this week so I went for a massage. As I'm always researching, I chatted with the masseuse about her life.
She was 27 and married with two kids. The One Child Policy has been relaxed she said, so it’s ok to have two.
Then things turned a bit creepy.
“I love your face!" she gushed, running her finger along the bridge of my nose.
"You Western woman have really tall, thin noses, not ugly flat ones like Chinese girls.”
She was young and attractive. I wondered, why the nose envy? Especially when one of the nicknames Chinese give foreigners is the unflattering “Da Bizi” (Big Nose).
But it didn’t stop with the nose.
“I love your eyelids,” she effused.
“Actually,” she continued, "I had mine fixed just last week.”
She pointed to her brand new double eyelids and blinked a few times to show them off.
“I know someone at the hospital, so I only paid $200 for the operation,” she said.
“If I want cheekbones like yours, that will cost $600. A long, thin nose, that’s the most expensive. $800.”
Cosmetic surgery in China is booming. In the West, I guess women do it to look younger and feel good about themselves. In China, cosmetic surgery is an investment in the future. Women from all walks of life believe that it will improve their chances - from finding a husband to scoring a better job.
And this wasn’t even in one of China’s megacities like Shanghai or Guangzhou. This was Zhengzhou the capital of Henan Province, described as “impoverished on a national scale” by Wikipedia.
In Henan, advertisements for plastic surgery are prominent on the streets.
The Western ideal of female beauty is even used to sell real estate.
Success is within reach if you can afford the right looks.
Personally, I’ve always ruled out cosmetic surgery. For me, it’s important to keep it real, although of course, I note the deepening of my own nasolabial folds (smile lines).
Actually, I only learned that term on the plane home from Zhengzhou. There was an ad for a nifty little device that purports to tighten saggy face muscles through exercise.
All you have to do is hold it in your mouth and vigorously nod your head up and down and presto! Tighter face muscles. (Inventors’ claim, not mine)
You can Google it… or watch my brother Stephen's giff here
Somehow I don’t think it has the same wow factor as cosmetic surgery, but perhaps wobbling or nodding would give some of those attractive Chinese women time to think twice about how to spend their hard-earned cash.
There have been several conversations about daydreaming in recent days, reminding me of my own career daydreams over the years.
When I lived in London some years ago, I became mesmerised by the food culture. This surprised me, because I’d always thought Australia had one of the most diverse and innovative food cultures in the world.
The U.K. was awash for food shows - Jamie, Gordon, Hugh, Raymond, Heston and of course, the best ever version of MasterChef. I devoured them all.
Having just spent two years in Jerusalem, where I shopped in the markets of the wondrous Old City and learned about finding the best hummous and falafel, I found the whole food thing in London very inspiring and I decided to enrol in a food-writing course.
One thing lead to another, and in my spare time, I became an infrequent restaurant reviewer for Time Out London. I was assigned to the Chinatown beat (because of my background in China and Hong Kong) and of course it was all secretive; you didn’t announce yourself to make sure you got a real experience.
I continued this for another publication after returning to Australia, until I got my ‘termination notice’ from the friend who’d employed me. It came at the right time.
Over the years, I’ve also dabbled - quite fanatically - in finding decent chocolate during my travels and becoming knowledgeable about Champagne.
An old friend reminded me last night that my first writing assignment at university (which was given a bare pass by a former tutor named Peter Temple - now one of Australia’s finest crime writers) was on the subject of chocolate.
And I discovered that there is a competition for amateur champagne lovers, some of whom become such experts, like Bernadette O’Shea, that their passion becomes their livelihood.
I realised that I could search out fine chocolate whenever I liked and bore people talking about it. I realised too, towards the end of my brief time moonlighting as a food reviewer, that I was fed up finding new ways to describe noodles (slippery, slurpy, silky, sublime). Trying to describe the difference in the ‘bead’ (size of bubbles) in Champagne… well, I realised in all of these passions, I really just wanted to consume and enjoy them. Very much.
Having to dissect and explain what makes chocolate, food and champagne so enjoyable just took away the magic.
It's always good to dream. For some the dream becomes something enduring.