Figuring out how publicly break cultural norms in a foreign society isn’t always easy, especially when the norms you want to break involve volatile situations that spring on you without warning.
I’m walking back to work from lunch and pass a group of older middle-aged people watching a man and a woman duke it out on the sidewalk. It’s not your typical vegetable market screaming match; they are full-on kicking and punching each other, furious and out of control. The guy is bigger and has the upper hand. Obviously I’m not going to just walk on by when a woman is literally getting beaten right in front of me.
But the tricky thing is, interfering in this sort of thing has huge potential to instantly make the situation worse and get the third party in a lot of trouble, which is partly why Mainland Chinese typically won’t interfere even in really bad situations. And adding to other people’s grief just so you can play hero is really selfish. Today’s situation is even trickier because this woman is asking for it. I don’t mean she deserves it. I mean that after the guy lands a couple punches or kicks he turns his back to her and starts walking away, but she chases after him, punches him in the face from behind, and provokes another couple haymakers in response. Anger can apparently override our survival instinct, or — and this is more likely — she could actually be trying to get him to beat her up. She might not want anyone to intervene because by provoking the violent man and deliberately making her situation worse she scores more pity points with onlookers or family members. And in their dispute’s bigger picture, winning over the relevant people probably matters more to her than a few bruises.
Anyway, that’s what I see happening in the few seconds from the time I notice them to the time I make it over to stand in between them. I don’t touch or even try to directly engage either one. The sudden presence of a foreigner who appears to not know the ‘rules’ for handling this sort of situation (which are: Don’t Get Involved) seems to throw them off their game a bit — either one would now have to go right over me to get at the other. It’s awkward, but it works. They give it up after a few choice parting words and walk away in opposite directions.
Intervening (or not) in public situations in China is a perennial topic among foreigners, partly because there seem to be more opportunities to do so here, and partly because the typical Mainland Chinese response to such situations scandalizes the resident lǎowàis. Not even the police are willing to get involved in domestic violence; it’s considered a private family thing, never mind if the victims are unable or unwilling to defend themselves. I’ve written before asking about culturally-intelligible, or at least effective, ways to break the ‘rules’ in hazardous situations where you feel compelled to do so. It’d be nice if life gave you a heads up when these situations are headed your way, so you had time to think about what to do instead of having to just act in the moment.
Other adventures in sticking our noses into other people’s volatile business in China:
- The Good Samaritan with Chinese characteristics (Pt.1): examples
- The Good Samaritan with Chinese characteristics (Pt.2): explanations, excuses, & scapegoats
- (How to be a) Good Samaritan with Chinese characteristics (Pt.3)
P.S. – This post is brought to you by the verbs 干涉: to interfere, to meddle; and 管: to manage, to control, to take care of. (I was using 干涉 when telling this story to some students this afternoon, and they said I should use 管 instead because 干涉 sounded too formal.)