Another event today where the awful side of chinese culture showed up [see an earlier post Feeling Political]. I was coming home about 4pm on the metro and just after I got on to a crowded train, standing room only, there was a disturbance about two doors along the carriage from where I stood and many people literally tumbled off their seats and ran and pushed past in a wave, running away from an emaciated and wildly gabbling young man who was staggering along the carriage in my direction. Goodness knows what the people running from him thought, but they were clearly really really terrified.
I didn’t know what was wrong with him (ill, drunk, sick, mentally ill, what??) but it was just too awful the way people were running so I headed the other direction shouting bang ta bang ta which is “help him, help him” and took his arm and just guided him on to the now totally vacant bench seat. I could see a lot of spit beginning to foam at his mouth, so I avoided any of that, and continued to say “bang ta”, and I think he was epileptic or in some kind of fit, but really I have no idea. Certainly although alarming, he was not dangerous, and my first thought that I might get vomited on was not going to happen. Fortunately other people now stopped running, a handful of tissue came from somewhere, and the poor man wiped his face and mouth, showing he was quite competent and not a drunk, even though he was still twitching and shaking. Then he began shouting wode bao wode bao [my bag], so I could tell he knew what he needed, and then a bag he had dropped further down the carriage was handed along. From it, still shaking and quivering all over, he took out a pill bottle, nearly spilled half of them and while he was trying to get one in his mouth another western woman appeared, grabbed a bottle of water from a chinese onlooker, and handed it to the man who then managed to get his pill swallowed. He got the water top back on, while this woman who spoke good chinese talked to him, and finally peace was more or less restored. I ended up with a seat opposite him, and others took the other vacated seats, beside and opposite, and although the poor guy was still distressed, they were no longer afraid of him.
The other western woman was from Slovakia, and her English was also extremely good [more thoughts about how dreadfully unilingual most of us English speakers are]. She and I talked until we reached her stop, and she translated some of what the unfortunate man was saying as he talked loudly to everyone, now without gabbling, but clearly wanting to explain himself. He was disturbed and disturbing – I would not query that, but who would not be if regularly so dreadfully rejected and feared? He told/shouted his story of abandonment by his parents and showed us his bag and his ‘hukou’ [identity papers] and told how he now lived as well as he could collecting plastic bottles, which were indeed the remaining contents of his bag.
I am left again thinking of how many unhappy people I have met here, though the surface and the ‘face’ is show happy at all costs, there is a very different story underneath. The inability to help others is just a symptom of something else, a paralysis of sorts maybe when the surface security is disturbed. There have been two horrible stories recently which reached newspapers [and many stories never do] of a child struck in the head by a football and left to die in a playground, and a toddler run over by a van, who was ignored by all passersby until run over a second time by a different vehicle. She also died. Her parents were migrant workers, a few yards away trying to sell their goods at their market stall.
My own much less important and more trivial anecdote is that when, on several different occasions, I was standing with a map in the middle of New York, I was offered immediate help by all sorts of people; but when similarly standing with a map in January in Guangzhou, and more recently in Shanghai, no-one even seemed to notice let alone offer to help, and when I stood right in front of someone whom I thought was a reasonable looking person, with a request, qing ni, please, I was shouldered out of her way! People here do not help, it may be can’t rather than won’t, but the effect is the same.
So, whatever you hear about China and its surging economy, the actuality seems to be that many people may not cope with the kinds of change they experience, or the pace of that change, and maybe for too many there is no change, just more hard life, unfairness, stress and distress.
Do not knock the achievements of the western life, although there is also massive unfairness there, and even while I write all this I am at heart with the protesters in London and Wall Street and very very glad that protest can happen. I know that in the west people can be disturbed or afraid of those mentally ill or disturbing in other ways, but I really do not think that there would be so many running away and I am still feeling agitated that in the first instance only me, a foreign granny, tried to help this unfortunate man!