As I was watching from the window I realized that this was the limit of what I would be able to say: “You’re a man, right?” “Then why did you hit her?” “Real men don’t hit women.” and “Come to our apartment for a break, you and my wife can drink tea and chat.” Even in your home culture and language it’s not always easy to sort out exactly how to get involved (or not) in these situations. You can imagine how much more complicated it is when you can’t understand what’s being said, don’t know the cultural norms for handling such situations, and your presence as a foreigner would likely cause things to escalate. But still, in certain situations a person should be willing act regardless.

They told us in orientation that one unfortunate side-effect of living in small apartments with thin walls is that when there’s a domestic conflict, all the neighbours know because everyone can hear what’s being said. I almost got involved in the one about an hour or so ago.

Obviously, clueless foreigners getting involved in anything like that is to be avoided as much as possible. Even if we understand what’s being said, we don’t understand the situation and all the various dynamics at play. Where I draw the line is witnessing physical abuse. That might one day get us into trouble. Fine.

It’s still raining outside in the “back yard.” I went and looked out the window around lunch time because I heard a male yelling and screaming and sounding potentially out of control. There were two couples about our age on the bike bunker where the old ladies exercise in the mornings; the whole neighbourhood had front row seats. The two young women were sitting in the rain on the wet pavement, just beside the dry pavement under an undercover area, their faces buried in their arms, which were wrapped around their knees. One man was just standing in the dry space, doing nothing. Another was irate, yelling and gesturing at both women from the dry space. The women didn’t move, or look up, or say anything. Jessica was in the other room, so I opened the window and the screen wide, leaned out, and started describing the scene to her (in English) so the guy would see and hear me watching.

He would yell for a bit, take a break for a minute or two, have a smoke, and then start yelling again. He gave one girl a little shove, yelled some more, and then grabbed them both by the arm and made them stand up (they were totally passive about it, not resisting much, but limp). Then he yelled and gestured some more. I have no clue what he was saying, or how these things work. Why did the women just sit there in the rain? Why not leave? Why was the other guy totally passive? Eventually the angry “man” grabbed the arm of the girl who was bearing the brunt of his tirade and pulled her down the stairs off the bike bunker into the trees where I couldn’t see. The others followed. The yelling increased, the women started yelling back, and eventually the fight turned the corner out of the trees into the lane that passes our gate.

dscn5085small.JPGMy view was partially blocked by the yellow heating pipes, but when I saw him shove her down onto the street and kick her I ran down our six flights of stairs. When I got to the bottom, other neighbours had also come out. She was still laying curled up on the wet road in the rain, but some older people were there and one older man with a cane was herding the angry guy off. I was standing a little further away next to the guy who works in the bike bunker. I tried to ask him what was going on and told him real men don’t hit women (in Chinese, he agreed). We watched for a bit, but the others had it under control. The girls went one direction and the angry guy was herded off in another. It was over. I headed back up the stairs out of the rain, just in time to receive a Skype call from home (we’re arranging for some of our Taiwan students to stay with my parents in Canada this summer).

7 thoughts on “Altercation”

  1. I don’t know what the deal was with those guys. With English phonetics it might look like, “Tien jeen” or something. Both first tone, so flat and a little high. The i in -jin is a long e. You can here sound files for each syllable (in Chinese Tianjin only has two syllables) here.

  2. There’s not much I can say in response to your post — other than the few chinese guys I’ve fought knew that I would punch at their head (as it was conveniently situated at my shoulder height) and they took advantage of this knowledge. I’m sure that really helps.

    I’m writing b/c I opened a car up for some ESL guys yesterday and I told them my brother lived in China. They asked me where and I said, “Tea-and-Gin” for “Tianjin”. Neither of them understood me at all, so I said it slowly, “Tea an Gin” it’s near “Bay Jing” and the one guy goes, “Oh! Tea an Gin!”

    So was he helping me save face, or did he really understand me? And how do you say the name of where you’re living in a way that can be understood?

  3. sheesh. that’s difficult. as a Westerner, I’d say good for you for going down to check things out. that’s really tough–all new rules on new turf in a different language. we’re continually thinking about you & who is with you.

  4. yeah, and you don’t want to make it worse, like turn it into an even bigger fiasco. There are too many stories among our friends and associates here of foreigners involved in various public episodes. It’s usually not good.

  5. How do groups like IJM figure they can do what you thought about doing, and get away without socially/culturally messing things up.

  6. I don’t really know anything about IJM. They came across as very American when I heard them, in a few different ways, but I don’t mean that as a total slam. If you’re really interested in that kind of question, I’d ask Houston Shearon. He just finished a degree in this stuff and has applied to work in Uganda with Invisible Children.

    When I heard IJM last they were heavy on “justice” and appealing to the laws of the land. I’m all for such things, and it’s great that they try to work with the systems in place, but in different cultural contexts people conceive of “justice” and the role of law differently (and usually give them lower priority than Americans do, in theory at least). And as IJM is no doubt aware, often the people who are supposed to be upholding the laws are helping break them (check your e-mail).

    I bring all that up to say that an outsider org may be very limited in what it can accomplish in the long term. Long term changes require changes to the actual culture of the people. (For example, which is more important: the law on the books and ‘justice’ or ‘harmony’ among the specific relationships involved in a particular case?) IJM will have a tough time doing more than addressing individual manifestations of injustice, rather than systemic, root causes, if they can’t find ways to catalyze cultural change. No doubt they’re working on it, and it’s a worthy pursuit, imo.

    And of course it’s not always bad to be culturally inappropriate or even counter-cultural. I’m willing to create confusion, misunderstanding, and offense if it means getting a girl at least temporarily out of immediate harm’s way. Aspects of every culture usually helps facilitate abuse in various ways… and that gets into long debates about the nature of culture, whether it’s neutral, bad, more bad than good, etc. Which then also gets into anthropology, and are people neutral, good, more bad than good, etc., and if people are a certain way, then what about groups of people and the culture’s and social constructs they create? And what’s the criteria for making those value statements?

    Whao, this one went off on a tangent… sorry! I just had my coffee.

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