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Helping an old lady cross the street…..might not be the best thing to do.

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Let me paint you a picture. You’re walking along a dirt road in a small town. It’s a beautiful day, and many others are out for a stroll. You walk by a wire fence, where the road slopes down a bit. You see an old man, slowly stooping down over something. As you get closer, you realize that an even older woman has fallen on her side, and lacks the strength to get up by herself. Do you help her?

If I were in America, I would not hesitate in rushing to the old woman’s side to help her back on her feet. I can’t imagine how helpless one must feel in that situation, although as a child, I often turned over my pet turtles into the exact same helpless position. The scene depicted above is a real one, one which I witnessed in a village when I went to visit my boyfriend’s family. As we got closer to what was going on, my instinct was to go over and help. But my boyfriend stopped me, and it wasn’t until later that he explained why. First of all, there were people already helping her, although I don’t think that’s much of an excuse. But more importantly, he explained that you can’t help strangers in China because you must assume that it’s a lie, that no matter how young or old they are (honestly, how dishonest could a helpless elderly woman in a small village be??) they could be a lowly trickster out for your money.

So basically, I should have automatically assumed that the elderly woman could walk perfectly fine without her cane, that she had added a small cotton pillow on her back to make her look like a hunchback, and that she was planning on living the last few years of her life rich off my money. That last part is laughable. If someone were trying to take advantage of my kindness for money, they would be sorely disappointed and at most get a couple extra bowls of rice a week out of it.

I wasn’t satisfied and kept asking my boyfriend “Why?” (my favorite question) He explained it like this: Let’s say I did go over and help the woman. If I were the only one around, and I went to help her just as people were turning the corner, she could claim that I was the one who knocked her down, making me financially liable. While it made sense in my head, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that this is commonly the default way to think in China. Assume that everyone’s a “pian zi,” or con artist. It makes me sad that the society has become like this. I don’t even know how it started.

Another example is people begging on the subway. I’ve heard from many local friends not to give money. Obviously, I’ve always been taught to give food, not money. The reason why my friends here don’t do it is because they think most of those people have good lives in the countryside, and get by easy off other people’s charity. When it comes to children begging on the subways and street corners, it’s highly probable that they are kidnapped children who are forced to beg. This year, a man started an online campaign on a micro blog posting photos of beggar children. Several parents and their children have been reunited as a result of the parents recognizing their children on the micro blog. That’s amazing.

I read a story online this year that really reiterated what my boyfriend had said to me. There was an old man who, while getting off a bus, stumbled and fell. Nobody moved to help him, and the old man, understanding what was going on, yelled out loudly “Nobody pushed me! I fell on my own!” Upon his vocalized liability release, bystanders went over and helped him back up. How crazy is that story? To be honest, I have mixed feelings. I’m not sure what I would do if I rewound time and passed that old woman who had fallen. I’d like to say that I would immediately help her, especially since it was in a small village setting and police were not as readily available. But part of me is also scared of facing legal matters as a foreigner, because it’s a lot easier to be the scapegoat when it’s not your country. I guess I won’t really know the answer to what I’d do until the next time something like that happens. Let’s just say that for now, I’m willing to give up the Girl Scout badge that requires me to help an old lady cross the street.

What would you do in this situation? Does being a foreigner affect how you’d show “acts of kindness” in a country you can’t call your own?

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