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 lǎowàis 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.