05 March 2007

How To Save A Life

Robin and I arrived safely in Chengdu and after struggling to find our bags (the sign said carousel 4, the attendant told us carousel 2 and the bags ended up on carousel 1) we had a recovery day of Pizza Hut, Starbucks, & card-playing. I did teach two impromptu English lessons – one to the Starbuck’s barista who wanted to know how to say “ketchup” & “jam” and one to a family of four who stared Robin & I down on the river promenade before asking if we were lovers. The mother rambled on in incomprehensible Chinese while the father showed me his English book and the daughters giggled uncontrollably. They did ask me to name them, which I was happy to do – Amy and Lianne. They just looked liked Amy and Lianne. No real explanation beyond that.

Random staring and commenting seems to be the major theme here in Chengdu, which I can only describe as a faceless cookie-cutter urban center that lacks any real personality. For whatever reason, here in Chengdu, we foreigners are just watched. The Chinese watch us eat, walk, talk and smile in a way that I have not experienced here in China. When they notice that you are looking back at them there is no reaction. Just more blank stares.

The travel buddy switch went very smoothly - Robin headed home and my Belgian host mom joined me – and I even talked the airline representative into voiding Robin’s overweight baggage charge!

As expected, it’s been nothing but madness since Anne arrived. We’ve eaten duck, chilled at the local backpacker hotspot (which was way more hip than I) and devoured the most delicious brownie I have ever tasted in my entire life. The secret is oatmeal. It took three cab rides and literally seven conversations to get our bus tickets to Chongqing, and not a single cab driver or hotel staff member helped us with our bags. Most watched and some even laughed, but no one offered a hand.

Anne and I spent an entire day conquering Quingshenshan, one of China’s five sacred mountains. As has been the theme of most of this trip, the scenery was absolutely incredible. We arrived early and hiked through the morning mist to the very top of the mountain, where we climbed to the top of the Pagoda. From there we were nestled just above the cloud forest, a 360-degree view of the hilltops around us. It was gorgeous! In all, we climbed over 3,000 steps (both up and down) alongside a slew of enormous Chinese tour groups, none of whom were paying any attention to the thousands of people around them who could easily fall off the cliffs into the deep ravines below. It was like Survivor: Foreigners. Only the strong will survive!

From there it was off to the Sichuan Opera. After asking seven police officers and security guards we thankfully stumbled upon the theater on our own (the last security guard was literally standing twelve feet from the theater entrance. His reply to my question? “Wo bu zhirdao” (I don’t know)). We were seated right next to the only other two foreigners, who were deep in a game of something using gypsy cards, their skull piercings hanging gently from their nostrils.

The show starts and the ear-cleaning crew disperses throughout the crowd, each equipped with a headlight-style flashlight similar to the one I used to repel into a bat cave in Guatemala. At some level I guess it’s similar work. It turns out, for roughly $4 you can have your ears professionally cleaned and massaged using the latest in ear-wax removal technology (a metal tong, tweezers, and a loose piece of cotton). Twenty minutes into the show and no one is paying attention.

This continues for 85 minutes, until it’s time for the audience participation time of the show – A knife thrower is going to place a guest against a wall and throw five knives at them. The host comes into the crowd and pretends to look around. We make eye contact and I know I am doomed. He navigates through the crowd until he is directly behind me. I feel a tap on my shoulder and look up. “Come with me please,” he says in perfect English. I stand and decide to totally ham it up. “Bu yao,” (I don’t want to) I say, totally selling it. The 500 or so Chinese people drop their sunflower seeds and bust into laughter. “Yao, yao” (You do want, you do want!”) they reply. Now everyone is paying attention. Apparently the thought of throwing a six-inch blade at a seemingly unknowing westerner excites them.

I spent the next ten minutes on stage fully milking every opportunity to make the crowd laugh. They stood me against the wall, put a blindfold on the knife-thrower and he pretended to aim. I made a scared face. Laughter. They mimed putting the blindfold on me. I made a scared face and shook my head. Laughter. Blindfold on, I begin to shake my knees, as if I am scared. Laughter. First knives thrown, blindfold comes off. I look at them and wipe my brow. Laughter. More knives, more brow, more laughter. Then comes the “pop the balloon with the knife” segment. They pretend to be unsure of where to put the balloon and look at me confused. I look down between my legs and shake my head. Laughter. Balloon placed between my legs, blindfold on, knife thrown, balloon pops, blindfold off, I look down, wipe my brow and look relieved. Laughter. All in all, a great time. My Chinese audience member counterparts definitely enjoyed the show, though I’m still unsure of whether or not they would have preferred that the knife had gone through my leg. Anne did an exceptional job of capturing the whole affair from the back of the theater.

The major event in Chengdu, however, occurred just moments after Anne arrived. We were crossing the street on a pedestrian bridge and came across a man literally trying to throw a woman over the ledge into oncoming traffic. She had her arms wrapped around the railing, one foot dangling over the edge, the other attempting to straddle the rails. She was crying and shaking more than any person I have ever seen. A crowd of at least 150 Chinese people was standing around watching this all unfold, not a single person doing a thing. I could tell that he was serious about throwing her over the edge and darted toward them, wrapping my arms around the girl's body while pushing the man away with my foot. I brought her to the ground. She wrapped her arms around me, buried her head in my shoulder, and said over and over again, "thank you" in English, crying uncontrollably. I yelled at the man in Chinese and told him to go away. He charged and attempted to grab the girl, but I kept myself between them, yelling at him, "go away!" A few minutes later her friends arrived, looking shocked by the whole affair. I made sure they went down to the ground before leaving, as the enormous audience thanked me one at a time for saving the girl's life.

What shocked me is the fact that not a single Chinese person did a thing about what was essentially attempted murder. No one even attempted to help! They just stood there, watching the scene unfold. This guy was committed to throwing her over the edge, and in the end, he just walked away. The police never came and he was never charged with anything. In the US this would have made CNN, for goodness sake! Experts would have been called in to assess his mental state and the "lasting impact" this would have on the girl. This situation definitely brought to light some major cultural differences.

I'm still having a difficult time understanding the passivity aspect of the crowd. In some Asian cultures it is customary for any person involved in a situation like this to then become responsible for the well-being of the entire family, though that is more true when the situation or incident involves the head of household.

Personally, I think a lingering fear of "involvement" and "responsibilty" still remains from the Mao-era. The entire culture is extremely hands-off. People are always finger pointing, blaming others for anything and everything. Under Mao, if you ever asked questions, you were marked as an "anti-revolutionary," and usually killed. Had this been someone questioned over their commitment to the Chairman and an individual had stepped in to say something, they would have been associated with the crime and therefore charged as well. It seems that no one really wants to feel responsible for anything, fearing repercussions. No matter how much China appears to have developed, I still come back to the point that by not focusing on the people and their personal development, their rapid growth will never be fully sustainable. In other words, there won’t always be a foreigner around to rescue the Chinese from dangerous overpasses. They’ve got to learn to do it themselves.

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