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 (), 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 , 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 ourare 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)
We 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 yǒu?” — 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.
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"]
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.
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 , 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.
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.
“People are worth less in China” is a provocative way to say that, in Chinese culture, there is less inherent value ascribed to the individual. The individual, in and of itself, is worth less, and this allows for routine public behaviour that appalls hyper-individualistic Western foreigners.
It’s not that the Western world is populated with millions of Mother Teresas or that the average Canadian naturally gushes altruism. Western cultures have their ugly sides. Besides, the Good Samaritan as most Westerners understand it is a watered down, less-obligated, mere shadow of the revolutionary and counter-cultural original.
Still, encountering Good-Samaritanless behaviour on the streets of the Middle Kingdom unavoidably tempts foreigners to indulge feelings of cultural and moral superiority whether such feelings are warranted or not. But regardless of which culture you belong to or how you think they compare, how we respond to other human beings is a moral issue. And knowing how to best act in situations in a culture that’s foreign to you requires some cultural understanding.
If you’re a foreigner in China, I hope Part 2 will help you better understand some of the shockingly calloused behaviour you’re occasionally witnessing; writing this is part of my own culture learning process. If you’ve never been to China, this article explores cultural factors behind the kind of behaviour described in Part 1 by surveying a handful of culture readings. (To discuss how we might intentionally respond to this particular aspect of Chinese culture, see Part 3).
I. Placing Blame
Why, when a man is bleeding from the head in the middle of the road in Tianjin, are the foreigners the only ones who rush to help, even though they’ve been advised by their Chinese friends to just walk on by? How can the supposedly “communal” Chinese not care about strangers?
The idea that Chinese don’t show even nominal concern for strangers isn’t new. Chinese social commentators bemoaned this aspect of Chinese society well before Liberation (1949). What or who gets the blame for this? As you may have guessed, Confucius — in whom Mainland Chinese both officially and in popular imagination currently locate the essence and source of “Chineseness” — takes a lot of flak.
林语堂 (Lín Yǔtáng) offers an explanation in My Country and My People, which he wrote in English to introduce Chinese culture to foreigners in 1935:
…Confucianism omitted out of the social relationships man’s social obligations toward the stranger, and great and catastrophic was the omission. Samaritan virtue was unknown and practically discouraged. Theoretically, it was provided for in the “doctrine of reciprocity”… But this relationship toward “others” was not one of the five cardinal relationships, and not so clearly defined. … In the end, as it worked out, the family became a walled castle outside which everything is legitimate loot [p.177].
Culture scholars Gao and Ting-Toomey convey similar observations (Communicating Effectively with the Chinese, 1998):
Cheng (1990) points out that the Confucian “five cardinal relationships” (wǔ lún; 五伦) put too much emphasis on family and one-to-one relationships (e.g., brother to brother and father to son); hence, they fail to address the broader aspect of human relationship, such as that between a person and the community at large. Liáng Qǐ Chāo 梁启超 (1936), a prominent thinker in modern Chinese history, attributed a Chinese person’s lack of “civic morality” (gōng dé; 公德) and sense of obligation to society to the Confucian ethic [p.14].
II. Suffocating Cynicism
The Mainland’s disturbing apparent lack of compassion for the stranger is enabled by the wilting cynicism directed at any would-be Good Samaritans. Why, if someone does dare to help, are they automatically viewed with suspicion and often assumed guilty? Why are altruistic motives the least likely of all possibilities? Here’s the most quotable explanation I’ve come across so far, once again from 林语堂 (Lín Yǔtáng):
To Chinese, social work always looks like “meddling with other people’s business.” A man enthusiastic for social reform or in fact for any kind of public work always looks a little bit ridiculous. We discount his sincerity. We cannot understand him. What does he mean by going out of his way to do all this work? Is he courting publicity? Why is he not loyal to his family and why does he not get an official promotion and help his family first? We decide he is young, or else he is a deviation from the normal human type.
There were always deviations from type, the … “chivalrous men,” but they were invariably of the bandit or vagabond class, unmarried, bachelors with good vagabond souls, willing to jump into the water to save an unknown drowning child. (Married men in China do not do that.) Or else they were married men who died penniless and made their wives and children suffer. We admire them, we love them, but we do not like to have them in the family [pp.171-172].
…in theory at least, Confucius did not mean family consciousness to degenerate into a form of magnified selfishness at the cost of social integrity … He meant the moral training in the family as the basis for general moral training [from which] a society should emerge which would live happily and harmoniously together.
The consequences are fairly satisfactory for the family, but disastrous for the state [175-177].
My own initial impression — and it’s just an impression — after living and studying in China for two years, is that Mainlanders are surprisingly quick to suspect one another’s motives, as if attributing negative, selfish, or less-than-noble motives to any seemingly unselfish gesture is automatic; it’s a given that altruism isn’t a real possibility. Potential Good Samaritans know this, and are therefore hesitant or afraid to act (see Example 5 in Part 1).
Here’s a perfect example, right from The People’s Daily:
…pedestrians in Fuzhou wanted to help when they found the old man lying on the ground last Wednesday. Two women tried to help the old man up. But one of the onlookers said: “Better not touch him. It will be hard for you to put it clearly later on.”
The two women hesitated and finally stood up. Using their cell phone, they called the police and first-aid center. But by the time the ambulance arrived, the old man had died.
The case is not exceptional. A similar tragedy happened just 13 days earlier, in Shenzhen. A 78-year-old man was found on the rain-soaked ground, face down in a residential compound, none of the onlookers took any action except to call the police. Despite the efforts of first-aid personnel to save his life, the man died. Had anybody turned him over and lifted his head up, the old man wouldn’t have died. When questioned by the man’s son, one of the community’s guards said: “We dared not touch the old man because we would not be able to put it clearly should anything untoward occur.”
The phrase “hard to put it clearly” may sound odd to foreigners, but everybody in China nowadays knows its meaning. When you try to help someone who falls to the ground injured or in coma, that person may allege that you caused the fall. You will then find it difficult to clear yourself of suspicion if the case is taken to court.
The same article describes a case where a bystander actually did help a woman who had fallen and broken her leg. The woman’s family took him to court, and the court ruled in favour of the family, saying it was most likely that the man was guilty (even though there was no evidence to support this) because “His behavior [of being a Good Samaritan] obviously went against common sense.”
It doesn’t help that playing for public sympathy is apparently something of an art form in China, and would-be victims can incur a similar level cynicism and distrust from witnesses. In this example translated from the Chinese internet, a crowd of onlookers sides with the out-of-town driver of an expensive car rather than the poor local pedestrian who was seemingly run down. In the crowd’s view, the pedestrian deliberately got “hit” by an expensive out-of-province car in an attempt to bully rich outsiders for compensation money — an allegedly common practice.
III. Prescribed Obligations
At this point, people with Chinese friends (or relatives) might be objecting, calling “unfair!” and at least wanting to balance out the picture. I’m among them, actually. After all, Chinese can be some of the most self-sacrificing individuals, certainly more so than the average American (see Example 2 in Part 1). The obligations to friends and family and the demonstrated willingness to meet them, for example, are greater than in the States. And where did that stereotype of the quiet, polite, accommodating Chinese come from anyway?
The [Americans] interact with Asians socially as well as at work and find them to be among the kindest, most considerate, and polite people they have ever met. Then, they meet other Asians in a public situation (on a bus, driving in traffic, in the market) and see them as rude, impolite, and inconsiderate. They wonder how people from the same culture can behave so differently [Gao, p.48].
Anyone who’s spent time among Chinese people knows that the Chinese can be some of the most generous and accommodating hosts on the planet. How is it that the same people who display warm, inviting, and consistenthospitality and graciousness in one situation (each linked word goes to a personal example of how we’ve experienced open-armed and often red-carpet treatment from our Chinese friends, neighbours, and employers) but display unapologetic heartlessness in another?
In Chinese society, how you stand in relationship to someone else defines how you should and shouldn’t relate to them, including your degree of obligation to them. In China, these different relationship categories (sometimes identified as family & close friends, guests, important connections, and strangers) make a huge difference in people’s behaviour.
Zì jǐ rén (自己人； “insider”) and wài rén (外人； “outsider”) are two of the most frequently used concepts in Chinese conversation. Chinese make clear distinctions between insiders and outsiders. A person with an insider status often enjoys privileges and special treatment beyond an outsider’s comprehension. Moreover, Chinese are less likely to initiate interactions or be involved in social relationships with outsiders. Thus, understanding the distinction between an insider and an outsider is an essential task in the Chinese self’s relational development. Chinese need to recognize not only where they are in relation to others but also, more important, whether their relationships with others are situated in an in-group or out-group context. The notions of insiders and outsiders are an integral part of the Chinese self-conception [Gao, p.49].
Hong Kong-based social psychologist Michael Harris Bond in Beyond the Chinese Facedraws the connection between the Chinese relational world and typical Chinese attitudes toward “strangers”:
There is no affective response toward such people, for they are outside one’s established groups. The law of the jungle tends to prevail, with people seeking their own personal advantage, totally indifferent to the needs and ‘rights’ of others. A careless pushiness, released by the absence of authority, is the order of the day. What Westerners would call rudeness and callousness are endemic to such encounters and result in some testy exchanges across cultural lines! They were certainly the inspiration for this remark by Ralph Townsend (an American consular officer posted to Shanghai in the 1920′s) in Ways that are Dark: ‘What we see among them (the Chinese) is complete indifference to supreme distress in any one not of their immediate family or associations, even where the most trifling effort would assist the afflicted person.’
The Chinese response is always based on the nature of a pre-existing, specific relationship. Strangers have no place in this social logic and are not mentioned in any of the Five Cardinal Relations [Confucian values]. In this vacuum there are no constraints beyond self-interest to bind people together. And it was surely to this area of public behaviour that Sun Yat-sen was referring when he described the Chinese as ‘a pile of loose sand’. Similarly, Sun Long-ji has written:
We may say that from birth, a Chinese person is enclosed by a network of interpersonal relationships which defines and organizes his existence, which controls his Heart-and-Mind. When a Chinese individual is not under the control of the Heart-and-Mind of others, he will become the most selfish of men and bring chaos both to himself and to those around him.
The only principle that might guide behaviour towards strangers is the Chinese ‘golden rule’ of Confucius, ‘Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.’ This counsel, however, is in the negative and prohibits harmful acts rather than promoting helpfulness. It is quite different in its consequences from doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. This Judeo-Christian dictum is another universal principle, but one that endorses an active reaching out to strangers. It finds its expression at the broader political level in constitutional safeguards for minority rights and a social welfare system; at the interpersonal level, in a greater willingness to assist the underdog. Such a principle operates less strongly in Chinese society [pp.56-57].
Sometimes foreigners in China mistake this calloused, seemingly selfish behaviour for “individualism.” I think it’s clear that this is a mistake. It’s the Chinese communal emphasis on family and long-term associates and the failure to perceive much inherent value in the individual that allows for the dehumanization and disregard of strangers, not a greater sense or growing value of individualism. Individualism may or may not be significantly rising in China, but public unconcern for strangers isn’t reflecting it.
IV. “A pile of loose sand” and the lack of civic consciousness
In the early 20th century, Dr. Sun Yat-sen famously referred to the Chinese as “a pile of loose sand” and apparently saw nationalism as the solution:
For the most part the four hundred million Chinese can be spoken of as completely Han Chinese with common customs and habits. We are completely of one race. But in the world today, what position do we occupy? Compared to the other peoples of the world we have the greatest population and our civilization is four thousand years old; we should therefore be advancing in rank with the nations of Europe and America. But the Chinese people have only family and clan solidarity; they do not have a hundred million people gathering together in China, in reality they are just a pile of loose sand.
That was almost a century ago. Today, China suffers from nationalism overload, yet the same lack of civic consciousness still plagues domestic China. Consider these comments from award-winning journalist Ian Johnson describing late-90′s China:
A friend of mine liked to argue . . . [that] the crackdown showed that Chinese actually didn’t care much about each other or the discrepancy in what they saw and what the [people in charge] did. There was no solidarity with the persecuted, unless they were family members or personal friends. It was like the traffic accidents that one sees in big Chinese cities — crowds gather only to stare; almost no one stops to help. No wonder [the people in charge] could hold on to power so easily, he said. It doesn’t have to divide and conquer its enemies; they are divided of their own accord. I had to agree with him, because I rarely encountered a person who got really angry about the way [the people in charge] treated [the persecuted] adherents. While some far-thinking people saw the campaign as unjustified and cruel, most simply shrugged and wondered why people bothered to stand up for something they believed in. Concerned with their daily struggles, they couldn’t understand why [the persecuted] believers insisted on exercising publicly. “Why not just exercise in the living room?” was the most common response I got when I asked about the repression… [pp. 288-289, my paperback 2005 edition].
Did I leave out any other major contributing cultural factors? Don’t be shy; let me know! I realize I’ve focused here on cultural heritage to the exclusion of other major contributing factors shaping Mainland Chinese relationships and society today, which at least deserve a mention: prescribed atheistic materialism in education and multiple consecutive generations experiencing severe trauma and brutality (decades of foreign invasion and civil war, the mass famine and political brutality of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution).
What should you do when you feel morally compelled to intervene in a public situation, but you know that everyone from the victim to the surrounding crowd will probably misunderstand your actions and discount your motives? When intervening means breaking social norms in a way that might result in an ugly public confrontation or you getting officially blamed for the very situation in which you’re trying to assist, and maybe even fined for it, should you still intervene? How, and under what circumstances? In other words, how to be a Good Samaritan with Chinese characteristics?
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.
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 arereasons 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.