Stranger Danger

A few days ago in the Chinese media there was a news article about a foreigner fainting on the subway in Shanghai, and instead of someone coming to help him, or at least going to get help, every single person in the train disappeared like a fart in the wind, leaving the man laying on the floor. The whole thing was caught on CCTV and circulated widely in the news, garnering much public discussion and condemnation.



People asked, is it just because he is a foreigner? If this happened to a local, would everyone still have run away? Others speculated that they weren’t willing to help because of fears of new disease outbreaks, like Ebola and MERS. But if a Chinese person collapsed, say, on the subway in Toronto, would a similar thing happen? Or is this just par for the course in China?

The fact is, in China getting involved can be risky business. There have been numerous news stories in the past few years about good samaritans who stopped to help a stranger in need and ended up getting forced to pay their medicals bills or even being held responsible, even though they did not cause the accident.

Earlier this year there was a BBC story about someone who stopped to help an elderly man who appeared to have been hit by a motorcycle, and after taking him to the hospital and even paying his bills for admittance, the elderly man’s family began stalking the good samaritan, demanding more money, and harassing him until it got to the point where the good samaritan actually killed himself because he couldn’t take the pressure anymore.

Sounds insane? I agree. But that’s not as insane as the shocking story from October 2011 where a two year old girl got knocked down in the road, and was left there to die while more than a dozen people passed by and stopped and looked. Oh, and to make matters worse, a few of them actually DROVE OVER HER, AGAIN. If you haven’t seen the video, please take my advice, and don’t watch it. Especially if you are a parent. It’s just too disturbing to try to comprehend and will make you sick to your stomach.

These kinds of things don’t only happen in China. There was a very famous case in New York where a woman was getting stabbed in the street and screaming for help. 38 people witnessed it from their windows but none came to help her or call the police. Not to mention a recent story in the news (again in New York) where a man fell on the subway tracks and stood there begging someone to help him. No one did, and the train killed him. But, a freelance photographer did have time to take out his camera and snap a picture. Enough time to take a picture, but not enough time to reach out a hand and save a human being’s life. What is this world coming to?

Some say this is the curse of life in a big city. In a place where no one knows your name and no one really gives a damn, are these incidents more likely to happen?

That may be part of it, but I’m not convinced.  Tokyo is the biggest city in the world with 30 million people, but if you were in the train station carrying a baby, and stood up at the bottom of the stairs with a big suitcase, you would never wait more than 10 seconds for someone to offer their help, guaranteed.

In Japan, I’ve also witnessed the exact opposite of what happened in the train in Shanghai. We were once in a car, sitting at a red light. A mother on her bicycle with a small child in the child seat started to cross the road, and lost her balance. She fell onto the street, and her daughter and her bags went tumbling off the bicycle. Within seconds, no less than four people had jumped out of their cars to help her get up. “Daijoubu?” they all said, helping her up, and picking up her spilled belongings. She looked especially bewildered to see two gaijin — me and an Indian woman — amongst the group of good samaritans, asking her in Japanese if she was all right. But then again, Japan is Japan, and perhaps cannot be compared to anywhere else on this planet.

Here in Hong Kong, there have been many instances where I’ve been absolutely shocked at the general apathy people display towards the needs of others.

Once in the airport, we had one baby, two suitcases, one box, and one fishing pole, all piled on to the trolley. Well, except the baby, obviously, who was attached to me in the Baby Bjorn. My husband went to pop in to the 7-11 to get some cold beers for the ride home, and I kept on walking, slowly, pushing the trolley towards the bus terminal. Next thing I knew, it lost balance and it all fell off on the floor. Lots of people were nearby. A guy on his cell phone looked over, made eye contact with me, and turned around. Another guy who was finishing off a smoke stubbed out his cigarette, stepped around me, and went on his way. Take a wild guess how many people eventually came to help the woman with the baby strapped to her chest? How many? A BIG FAT ZERO. Surprise! Bet you didn’t expect that.

My friend Laura told me she was jogging the other day and took a misstep, and ended up falling flat on her knees on the road. She got quite hurt and was bleeding profusely. “Not one person came and helped me up!” she said incredulously. “Everyone looked and gaped, but nobody came and even said, ‘are you okay?'”  I’m not sure why she was shocked — that sounds like par for the course to me.

And just yesterday, another friend had a similar incident; she exited her office building, but as the floor was wet from the rain she slipped and fell straight on her ass. She said six people were standing there at the exit, smoking, and while they all turned and looked at her, not one said ‘are you okay?’ or came to help her up.

What is it? Is it just a foreigner/local thing? A language thing? A cultural thing? A distrust of strangers? Or do people really just not care? I asked myself, what would happen in Trinidad? I think if someone fell down walking on Frederick Street in Port-of-Spain, a few people would come to help you up, and probably say something funny to you to make you smile, or if you’re cute, maybe give you some lyrics.

I’ve noticed, however, that things are a bit different here in Mui Wo (population: approximately 6,000). The pace of life here is slower, and people get to know you more easily because you see them every day of life, so you’re not just another nameless soul taking up space on the sidewalk.

One night I heard a knocking on the door, and when I went down I saw it was my Chinese neighbour with her six year old daughter, Ella. They were standing there smiling, holding a tupperware container. “I made a Chinese cake,” the mom said, “and Ella wanted to give some to your baby.”  How sweet is that? I’ve never had a neighbour give me cake before in all the places I’ve ever lived. Since then she has also given me fruits and other tasty things to eat, and I’ve given her  many things in return.

In the local wet market, the woman who runs the fruit stand doesn’t speak much English, but loves kids, and insists on giving Lynn a grape every time we go shopping. Sometimes she also gives Lynn a really disgusting tasting cracker, and I simply don’t have the heart to tell her no thank you, so we take it anyway and smile. I suppose in a small town, it pays to be nice to your neighbours.

If you want to read some other bloggers’ thoughts on some of the other things that can make Hong Kong a sometimes unpleasant place to live, be sure to check out HONG KONG SUCKS, a hilarious blog that deals with everything from the treatment of domestic workers to the curiously popular habit of people clipping their nails (and toenails) on public buses.

In the meantime, if you happen to be in China, try not to pass out in public. Remember, you’re on your own!

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