The Good Samaritan with Chinese characteristics (Pt.1): examples

Is there a “Good Samaritan” equivalent within the Chinese cultural ethos? Some would say no. For me and a lot of other foreigners in China, the apparent unapologetic absence of a Good Samaritan impulse — an alarming, flagrant disregard for other people — is one of the most shocking and appalling aspects of Chinese culture and society.

I wrote on it during our first year in China because it “thundered” me (我被它雷了), but never published it on the blog because I was trying to be careful about how we shared the negative side of our China experience. Showing up in someone’s country and immediately writing about their embarrassing social and cultural problems is bad form. Plus, I wanted to have better understanding of what was going on, read more, maybe discover the other side of the coin, and get some distance and perspective from the experience and the culture stress (by getting out of China) before sharing it with family and friends (and the internet) back home.

So I’m sharing it now, in three parts: Recognizing examples of the behaviour we’re talking about (Part 1), Understanding some of the underlying cultural “whys” (Part 2), and Deciding how to intentionally respond to this aspect of Chinese culture (Part 3).

Judging Other Cultures

We do judge other cultures whether we realize and admit it or not; it’s unavoidable for anyone with their brains at least half switched on, and it’s not a bad thing in and of itself. How, when, and why we judge are the areas where we often get into trouble. This isn’t about trying to make one culture look better than another or put down Chinese culture. Any of the aforementioned people-with-their-brains-at-least-half-switched-on ought to realize that Western societies have no shortage of glaring, embarrassing cultural issues. In fact, an intelligent Chinese critique of appalling aspects of Western cultures that they encountered while living in Canada would be fascinating to me, and valuable to my cross-cultural understanding.

When you enter a new cultural context, like if you’re a Canadian who moves to China or a Mainlander who’s moved to Canada, lots of stuff seems more or less annoying or offensive. That’s part of the cross-cultural experience. But understanding some of the reasons why people behave a certain way takes the edge off those feelings of superiority and condemnation, and we can maybe start sympathizing or empathizing or even start behaving that way ourselves. Occasionally you may still decide to personally reject or even morally condemn an aspect of a foreign culture after gaining some understanding of it, but at this point you’re not blindly judgmental.

For little things, like strangers getting a little ‘too personal’, it’s easier to reserve judgment at first and then learn not to be offended later on. But other things are so blazingly offensive that you’d rather curse the people out than attempt to understand and empathize. The behaviour we’re talking about in this series of posts is of the latter kind.

So with that overly-long intro out of the way, here are some real life examples of what the “absence of a Good Samaritan impulse” looks like in today’s China.

Is there a Good Samaritan in the house?

Example 1: Traffic fatality outside our language school
Why is it that, in China, when a guy is laying in the road bleeding from the head, the only people in the crowd who rush to help him are the foreigners?

The semester before we arrived, an American friend was with other Mandarin students and teachers leaving the school grounds on their way to a school group lunch when she heard tires squeal and a sickening *crunch*. They turned in time to see a man and his bicycle fly through the air and hit the pavement with a second gut-wrenching crunch. A crowd of passersby formed around the man, who was bleeding from the head.

And everyone just gathered around, watching.

Our friend hesitated. The teachers said not to get involved. All the foreigners in our NGO are warned during orientation that getting involved in accidents is dangerous. A person’s voluntary involvement is often interpreted as guilt, and our foreign presence can escalate potentially volatile situations. Some people started to try and move the man — he was blocking traffic.

Another classmate friend, a nurse from the UK, was also at the accident scene and she tended the man before the ambulance arrived, which took over 45 minutes. The man was in shock, and our friends heard later that he died at the hospital. They still wince at the memory of the sound of the impacts.

Example 2: “Did anybody die?” (from Peter Hessler’s River Town)
rivertowncover.jpgWe read Peter Hessler’s River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (2001) to one another as a bedtime story, and he witnessed this phenomenon in different forms during his years in Sichuan province. After praising the way families in Fuling cared for their members — how the elderly are given a sense of purpose and involvement, how family members demonstrate a high degree of selflessness and self-sacrifice relative to typical American families — he makes an observation echoed often in our culture readings: step outside the in-group (family, important connections, guests), and these same heroically self-sacrificing people can appear unbelievably calloused and indifferent to the needs and suffering of others.

Hessler illustrates this with several everyday examples: ticket booth “piles, great pushing mobs in which every person fought forward with no concern for anybody else”, people watching pickpockets rob strangers yet saying nothing, and traffic accidents:

Crowds often formed in Fuling, but I rarely saw them act as a group out of any moral sense. I had witnessed that far more in individualistic America… Certainly there is rubbernecking in America as well, but it was nothing compared to what I saw in Fuling, where the average citizen seemed to react to a person in trouble by thinking: This is not my brother, or my friend, or anybody I know, and it is interesting to watch him suffer. When there were serious car accidents, people would rush over, shouting eagerly as they ran, “Sǐ le méi yÇ’u? Sǐ le méi yÇ’u?” — Is anybody dead? Is anybody dead?

…usually I watched the faces of the crowd rather than the actors themselves, and in their expressions it was hard to recognize anything other than that single eager observation: something was happening [pp.112-113].

Examples 3 & 4: Helping is hazardous… and foreign
We were all warned during orientation that if we voluntarily helped out at an accident scene in China, it could be interpreted as guilt. They weren’t kidding.

An American friend of ours saw an old man fall off his three-wheel cart. Two other bike riders had come against the flow of traffic in the bike lane and the old man fell while trying to avoid them. The two riders took off but our friend stayed to make sure the old man was alright. But the old man blamed our friend and called the police! Only after repeatedly telling his side of the story for a few hours at the police station did the police finally decide that our friend was just a dumb foreigner who didn’t know any better and let him go. The idea that someone would stop to help out a stranger and not have some ulterior motive is apparently a foreign concept.

Another time, a man on a bike was waiting at a red light, and I watched him watch an old man tumble off his bike into the road right in front of him. If I’d opened the door of my taxi I could have hit him where he sat on his bike acting like there wasn’t a senior citizen lying in the road at his feet. Maybe I should have. I tried to get his attention, but he avoided eye contact. The old man picked himself up with a few grimaces and went on his way.

Example 5: How to get help
This comic is an example of something obvious that’s easy to forget: Chinese people are well aware of their own social problems. Here, an old man has fallen getting off a bus, a crowd has formed to watch, but the bystanders hold voice recorders and won’t help until the man clearly says that he fell by himself (and therefore no one is at fault). They’re afraid that if they help, they’ll end up like our friend in Example 3. One man is asking the old man to please say it again for his voice recorder because he didn’t hear clearly the first time.

More Examples
When unfamiliar or unknown foreign cultural factors are involved, it’s sometimes hard to know what to do in sudden situations that cry out for a Good Samaritan. Michael at expatriate games shares his sad experience of trying (and failing) to stop a guy from jumping off a bridge, and trying (and failing) to get the people watching to do something, like phone China’s 911. We’ve experienced similar incidents of indecision: Once I ran down to intervene when a woman’s boyfriend was physically and verbally abusive to her in public but was too late. Other times we’ve seen children being beaten in public by out of control mothers and no one intervened, etc. Occasionally stories like these end up in the news (translated): “Elderly falls in the middle of the road, no one helps because fear of being framed” and “83-year-old man fell over, passers-by watch him die.” Here’s a excerpt from The China Daily about an infamous incident:

On Nov 20, 2006, an old woman fell to the ground and broke her leg after jostling at a bus stop in Nanjing. A young man, Peng Yu, helped her up and escorted her to hospital. Later the woman and her family dragged the man to court, which ruled that the young man should pay 40 percent of the medical costs. The court said the decision was reached by reasoning. The verdict said that “according to common sense”, it was highly possible that the defendant had bumped into the old woman, given that he was the first person to get off the bus when the old woman was pushed down in front of the bus door and, “according to what one would normally do in this case”, Peng would have left soon after sending the woman to the hospital instead of staying there for the surgical check. “His behavior obviously went against common sense.” [See “Need to protect our Good Samaritans“]

From “In China, Don’t Dare Help the Elderly”:

On the morning of Sept. 4, in the riverside boomtown of Wuhan, Mr. Li, an 88-year-old man, fell in the street and injured his nose. People passed him by, but no one raised a hand to help as he lay on the ground, suffocating on his own blood.

This week, China’s netizens have expressed an outpouring of sympathy — for the bystanders.

From “The Crisis in the Chinese Soul”:

There is no such thing as selfless or altruistic love in the Chinese society, even children are thought as investments.
In the village next to mine, a local boy was killed while delivering pizza to foreigners from a popular international chain. The authorities could not find out who was responsible for the hit and run, and so the parents were denied the revenge that is normally expected in such a situation. Even more importantly, the old woman cried in public, was that she was denied the money due to her in reparation for the death of her son. Taking pity on her, the foreign boss that had hired her son paid her 300,000RMB, out of the goodness of his heart. The couple was angered by the small amount that the boss gave them, and blocked the entrance to his restaurant, effectively halting business and trying to blackmail the boss for more money. I remember sitting in this pizza parlor while the boy’s parents, two fifty year old country people, wept and wailed, begging for money from each customer, and protested against the “unjust businessman” who had given the family more money than any Chinese boss would have paid had he been fined for directly causing the death. When I asked local Chinese if they thought that this couple’s actions were fair, they all pointed out in light of the situation, “Their son cannot provide for them anymore, so of course they need to get money from someone.” They also were clear to point out, “The foreign boss brought this down on his own head. He didn’t cause the accident, so if he wanted to stay clear of the problem, he shouldn’t have given them any money.”

When a student stabbed his mother multiple times in the Shanghai Pudong Airport, the only person who interfered was a foreigner. The story and video circulated around the Chinese internet, and you can see it, along with translated online comments, here. In an even more sickening story that provoked outrage in mainstream Chinese and international news, a toddler is run over twice, people just ignore her, and it was all caught on camera.

Up Next…

Obviously this isn’t an attractive part of Chinese culture. However, poor understanding will just make it look even worse. Also, well-intentioned foreigners could get into a lot of trouble if they intervene without understanding enough what’s going on. The next post, The Good Samaritan with Chinese characteristics (Pt.2), samples what some Chinese culture scholars (both Chinese and foreign) have to say about the cultural factors underneath the kinds of behaviour described above and why people in China tend to act this way.

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8 thoughts on “The Good Samaritan with Chinese characteristics (Pt.1): examples”

  1. Very interesting..

    Thank you for sharing your article with us. I’ve always wanted to read more about this (since I’ve heard a lot about it but have never experienced it first hand).

  2. I can’t understand why you use the term foreigner throughout your writings. Surely, it’s a useful term to look at since it is so heavily used in today’s China (weiguoren, laowai, weiguo pengyou etc.) so some use makes sens, but you seem to actually accept the term.

    But can’t you at least put it in quote marks, or italics?

    What’s wrong with using specific language for different contexts and focuses like : non-Chinese, ethnic Chinese, non- Chinese national, ex-pat, foreign tourist, foreign national, visitor, non-Han Chinese or non Han locals etc.

    The catch all term foreigner has many sides, lots of baggage, most of it not very pretty.

  3. @bug:

    You’ve brought up an interesting and important concern regarding the use of the term “foreigner”, or, more to the point: uncritically adopting the categories (in this case, people-categories) that are presented to us (in China, our home countries, or anywhere). IMO, this happens way too much. It’s actually a way of manipulating others’ opinions; I’ve heard it said that “the person who defines the terms always wins the argument”, and the same general thing is true for thought categories. And it is interesting to me how you can easily witness Chinese understandings and usages of 老外 and 外国人 unconsciously adopted by foreigners in China in their thought and speech.

    I admit my use of the term “foreigner” on the blog is not very intentional and usually just for convenience sake, and definitely is influenced by 外国人 and 老外。 Your concern has actually been in the back of my mind for a while, but I haven’t paused to explore it much yet. If I wrote a post about Chinese and North American people-categories, then I’d be more careful about what I used. Sometimes I use laowai when I want to specifically refer to usually-native-English-speaking, usually-white foreigners as opposed to Koreans in China (for example), but not consistently. I can only claim laziness! :)

    But for these Good Samaritan posts, I didn’t see any reason to use a more specific term than “foreigner.”

  4. I think the reason for many Chinese people’s lack of intervention when they see someone else in trouble is an ingrained fear of getting into trouble or being held responsible, when they don’t fully trust that the justice system will make a reasonable decision based on the facts.

    It’s not to do with a lack of compassion, I think the ability to empathize with others is basically an inborn trait of human beings.

    1. Yeah, Part 2 gets into some of the things you’ve mentioned: fear of being held responsible or getting entangled in other people’s troubles, and lack of confidence in the justice system to protect them (like in that famous case where the Good Samaritan was sued and lost).

  5. It seems to me that people are becoming much more callous the world over, and part of that is people’s fear of negative response or legal battles. Such things happen in the west these days as much as China. that said, there are still deep cultural attitudes to the ways and context in which one might offer help and your article starts to address those – I ‘ll read the others when I have time.
    Everywhere, also, negative reporting sells papers, or directs traffic on internet sites for major news suppliers. There’s lots of examples in China of people helping each other – see for example
    whether it comes under the category of “good samaritan” or not is another thing- even the term ‘samaritan’ has cultural and religious connotations.
    thanks for your interesting and thought provoking blog.

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