(How to be a) Good Samaritan with Chinese characteristics (Pt.3)

Daily Public Drama
Yesterday, around 11am. We hear the yelling even before we step into the Vancouver Skytrain car. A man and a woman, both of whom look like they’ve spent the last fifty-some-odd years getting kicked around at the margins of society, are loudly cursing each other out in uncreative but effective terms. Their crowded fellow passengers appear tolerantly disinterested, but many discreetly pay attention from the corner of their eyes, including Jessica and I as we sit down; they look like what people call “junkies,” who can be unstable and unpredictable.

The train starts to move, more yelling, I look away. Suddenly Jessica says, “Wow he just slapped her!” I look up just in time to see a 20-something man, who is sitting directly behind the violent man, reach over the chair and force him down into his seat, pinning his arms: “I don’t [expletive] care what your [expletive] problems are!” He angrily tells the man while refusing to loosen his grip. “You don’t [expletive] hit a woman! I’ll hold you here ’til the police come, I don’t care!” Someone’s already hit the silent alarm, and in less than a minute we arrive at the next stop where Skytrain security escorts the pair off. The rest of us, including the colourfully-spoken Good Samaritan, continue on to the next stop.

A Cross-cultural Difference
Most aspects of this scene we witnessed yesterday on Canadian public transit — people causing a ruckus, foul language — are unremarkable in both Vancouver and China. But one aspect that was unremarkable for the passengers in the Skytrain car would seem suspiciously out of place in Tianjin: a stranger unhesitatingly intervened on behalf of a person he doesn’t know but who is in distress. Like Vancouver, China also has occasional public situations that cry out for the intervention of a Good Samaritan, but for a lot of different reasons, Mainlanders won’t usually intervene.

I experienced almost the same situation in Tianjin. I was riding a crowded bus when a man started kicking a woman, whom he’d been arguing with. No one did anything. I stepped in between them but looked away, not engaging either one; it was a passive-aggressive intervention but it forced the guy to stop. If I hadn’t stepped in, it would have been the same as all the other times we’ve seen women or children beaten in public, or traffic accident victims laying in the road — some would have watched, but no one would have moved quickly (if at all) to intervene.

In another Tianjin incident, I came across a man beating a woman on the sidewalk and — on the spur of the moment with no time to think — attempted another passive-aggressive, indirect intervention. But the details of that situation suggest that such situations are a lot more complex than the average foreigner might assume (Breaking the ‘rules’ in China — getting involved when you know you’re not supposed to).

(I’m not holding up the two situations above as models to follow; they’re just personal real-life examples of a foreigner suddenly finding themselves in a Good Samaritan-type situation with precious little time to think.)

A Cross-cultural Problem
The problem — well, one of several problems — is that when Average Joe Canadians like yesterday’s Skytrain Good Samaritan go to China and encounter certain inevitable situations, they’ll instinctively want to intervene and be appalled at the Chinese public’s unapologetic apathy. They’ll feel they should intervene, that it’s the right, good, and moral thing to do. Allowing a woman or child to be beaten in public or an accident victim to lay unassisted in the road (all of which we’ve personally witnessed) seems wrong to them. But in China there are different rules for playing Good Samaritan, and well-intentioned would-be Good Samaritans could be entering a world of trouble; there are reasons why people in China are hesitant to help.

How do you be a Good Samaritan in China?
My point is not to demonstrate, however dubiously, that foreigners are somehow generally more moral than Chinese. The title “Good Samaritan with Chinese characteristics” points to a goal that I think will benefit both foreigners and Chinese: working out how to act as Good Samaritans (intervene in certain public situations) in a way that, although perhaps necessarily steps outside the Mainland’s current social norms, is sensitive to and makes sense within a Chinese cultural context.

Chances are that Western foreigners in China will find themselves in situations where they want to act, but acting in those situations is precarious. Rather than just telling them to not act (and thus violate their consciences… at least, those foreigners in China who actually have consciences), I think it’s better to ask how to act.

What does a Chinese Good Samaritan look like? How would he or she intervene? The questions contains two necessary assumptions: (1) that the person is Chinese (or a culturally-informed foreigner), and (2) that they will act as a Good Samaritan when the situation calls for it. How can a Mainlander act as a Good Samaritan without getting into or causing too much extra trouble?

The best answers to questions like these will come from cultural insiders, not outsiders; only Chinese people have the necessary cultural insight to create the best answers to these kinds of questions. But since we lÇŽowàis have to live and act in China, the question is still relevant for us, too. Ideally, of course, Chinese and foreigners in China would explore solutions together (just don’t start holding hands and singing Kum Buy Ya, or I’m out).

This goal is no doubt beyond the scope of a single blog post, but I hope we can at least start people thinking and maybe collect a few good ideas.

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13 thoughts on “(How to be a) Good Samaritan with Chinese characteristics (Pt.3)”

  1. the question of how to intervene and reshape the world in my image also preoccupies my thoughts. four examples from living in shenzhen.

    roughly ten years ago, i was parking my bicycle when a truck backed into me and the bike. as i was unhurt, the policeman who saw the accident turned away, as did other pedestrians. the result was that the driver simply left as quickly as possible and no one asked if i was alright. when i complained to my husband and chinese friends, they replied, “maybe the police man thought you couldn’t speak english.”

    about three years ago, in a rather desolate stretch of shenzhen, i intervened when a man was obviously forcing a woman to go somwhere against her will. while preventing the man from following her, i tried to call the police. however, it took over two minutes for someone to answer the phone and by then both man and woman had vanished, both in the same direction.

    recently, someone has been making harrassing calls to my cellphone. it has been difficult to ascertain how to block the calls and even more difficult to report the matter. both the police and china phone have directed us to our server, who sends us back to the police and china phone…

    and then, one evening last week, i was disembarking from a taxi in a rain storm and knocked over a biker. he was unhurt but began screaming at me. i replied that screaming at me wouldn’t change anything and asked what i could do to help. instead of answering that question, he lectured me on how i should always look out my window before opening a car door to see who was there and then he pedalled off.

    i am still trying to understand these experiences. at the same time, as an american, i’m accustomed to the idea that justice doesn’t prevail. indeed, this assumption is the foundation for the popularity of television fantasies like c.s.i. and criminal minds, where justice does prevail and unconnected people do care.

    it seems to me that in both u.s. and chinese cities anonymity is an important aspect of indifference; perhaps a productive way of learning to be a good samaritan is working to unmake deliberate misrecognition of commonality. but that’s the rub, isn’t it? is there something “human” that is universally recognizable across cultures? or do we merely recognize what is culturally determined to be “human” in our home cultures?

    on that note, a quote that i have long garbled and attributed to albert camus: to love is to be unjust, yet justice is not enough.

  2. If we build a campfire, and just hum Kum Ba Ya while strumming a guitar, will you stay with us, Joel?

    It can only be nature or nurture – or to put it another way; genetic or cultural.

    I can’t believe it is genetic.

    So, how does one change the culture of 1.3 billion people? Maybe we need to be taking more cues from McDonalds and KFC. One by one takes a loooooong time with 1.3 billion people, maybe we need a TV show?

    How would you feel about singing Kum Ba Ya on CCTV, Joel?

  3. James:
    If you guys start singing Kum Ba Ya around the campfire, i might feel “compelled to intervene,” but i’d sing almost anything on CCTV for the right amount of money.

    mary ann:
    As for questions about deliberately trying to change cultures, I think those are relevant, but here I’m more asking about how to act within a cultural context when we feel compelled to do things that break social norms and exacerbate difficult situations. Trying to deliberately break social norms in culturally sensitive ways; calculated counter-cultural behaviour, if you will… ;) Considering the potential influence of such behaviour is part of it, and ultimately the more interesting aspect of all this, i think.

  4. James, human behaviour results from a combination of experience and the expression of genes; behaviour is modified through newly acquired experiences, which build upon the existing gene-experience interaction. The nature or nurture dichotomy is not supported by current theories in science.

    Joel, thanks for your great series of posts. This is a social phenomenon in China which deserves much discussion.

    In the case of the suicidal, bridge-jumping teenager, I would have grabbed him without hesitation and spent time talking with him afterwards.

    In terms of trauma, from a medical perspective, as long as the injured person is concious, responding verbally, and not bleeding heavily, there is not much a good Samaritan can intervene in and assist with. If I were to encounter an injured individual in China who is unconscious or has an altered level of consciousness, has an obstructed airway, is not breathing, or is exhibiting significant external bleeding, I would not hesitate to intervene and apply first-aid, for without it the individual would die. Besides, due to the critical condition from which the individual suffers, to require such an intervention from my part would mean that it would be physically impossible to place the blame on me.

  5. I’ve found I’m not really sure how I will respond to situations like these until I’m in them, so all I can contribute is what I have done before that worked.

    I was recently walking along major road in Beijing when I saw a guy walking closely behind an oblivious young lady, reaching carefully into her purse while looking me in the eyes as if to wink and say, “our secret, ok?”

    It took me a couple of seconds to realize that if I were being pickpocketed, I would want someone to stop it, but then realizing that I actually didn’t know how to say anything that would have gotten the girl’s attention. I almost gave up and walked away, but was generally annoyed and irritated at the whole thing, so I turned around and shouted an angry “HEY!”

    I was already several feet past the girl by this point, and the theif was already walking away from her in my direction. In turning around I had bumped into a large Beijing man who was prepared to be angry at me, but saw what wad happening and yelled something in Chinese which sounded like a garbled grunt.

    Whatever he said, he got the girl’s attention. She immediately put her hand to her bag, realized her phone had been stolen, and whipped around to try to spot the theif.

    I had stopped during all this, and the theif by now had come even with me and stopped to face me to see what I would do. Still generally annoyed, I swept off my hat, and made a fairly indignant gesture as if to say, “Come on! You’ve GOT to be kidding me! In broad daylight at rush hour?!? Seriously?!?” and turned to the girl and pointed at the theif, who was about to make a swift getaway.

    The girl dashed over, and the theif stopped and simply handed back the phone to her.

    She turned and left without a word and without evening looking at me. The theif got out his cell phone and started calling someone all while glaring angrily at me. I shook my head in disgust, put my hat back on, and walked away.

    In this situation things turned out OK, but I think in the future i’f probably just bump into her as I went past hard enough that she’d either run into the guy behind her, or turn around to look at me and notice he was there.

    In a similar event, I was at a Spring Festival event in Shanghai and saw a man reaching into a pocket on a woman’s purse. I glared at him and tapped the woman on the back so she’d have to turn enough to see the guy there.

    Embarrasingly, she did turn, see the guy and them look at me quizzically. It was her husband! He was buttoning the flap on her purse so no one could pick pocket it!

    Haha! I explained about seeing the theif in Beijing, and we all got a pretty good chuckle out of the whole thing. They both seemed appreciative.

    I think when it comes to theft, the victims often don’t mind the interference. I’m learning to be more discreet about my involvement, though.

  6. Taiwan is technically Chinese in culture but without the Cultural Revolution I feel that we have retained a type of charity compassion towards strangers.

    Perhaps it’s because a lot of us are Buddhist and that influences us to help others.

    One really famous Buddhist organization in Taiwan is Tzu Chi and they have been doing a lot of good deeds in Taiwan and internationally as well.

    I say this because Tzu Chi was recently allowed to go to China and is one of the officially supported charity organizations. So hopefully the start of this officially supported organization can guide others be more willing to help.

    (Of course I think one of the biggest factors is standard of living. Once China is less cut-throat and people can care less about money perhaps their compassion towards strangers will grow).

    Also, here is a very nice article about a guy who helps rescue suicide jumpers at a bridge in Nanjing:

  7. I’m very curious to hear about possible reasons behind this kind of behaviour (like the influence of the Cultural Revolution, for example). I tried to identify the major ones here, but if there are any important ones I’ve missed, please let me know!

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