Anyone who has spent any real time in China has had to deal with a situation similar to that thoughtfully described in this post, entitled, “Breaking the ‘rules’ in China — getting involved when you know you’re not supposed to.” The post is about a public fight between a man and a woman and the issue is whether the laowai (foreigner) should get involved and I recommend you read it and give us your thoughts.


  • Jeffrey T.

    What would I have done? I have to confess I don’t know.

  • Albert Z.

    When in Rome….

  • Aaron

    The author (Joel)’s conflict stems from his own need to do “something” vs. what he thought was the rule of “don’t interfere”.
    The answer is simple: Don’t Interfere. (Especially in a dispute that Joel had very little personal knowledge of).
    Joel recognized that that’s not a rule just for Laowai in China, but it’s a Chinese social norm. (Frankly, if that dispute was in US, few people would bother to interfere. Call the cops maybe, but not interfere).
    Well, when in China, do as Chinese do. Nothing gets a person more in trouble than challenging social norms in foreign countries.

  • Glen

    Although interfering in China can be dicey, I would help if a child was being hurt. I understand that getting involved in disputes between adults caould be fraught with peril but I am not going to abandon basic human decency because of “social norms.”
    It’s also important to note that Mainland Chinese are willing to sacrifice to help others. Just look at some of the videos from mudslides and earthquakes that have happened in the last few years.

  • J.

    My friends jumped into a stream to save a kid last month. That’s a bit different than a dispute, though.

  • nathan

    When you first get here and you see such situations where people are ‘misbehaving’ in public and strangers do not intervene you reach the conclusion that Chinese are terrified of getting involved in ‘other people’s business’, which may be partly true. But you also have to think about what constitutes the kind of misbehaviour that warrants intervention. This is highly culturally sensitive in my view.
    For example, queue jumping: in China – little to no intervention by strangers. Canada – may quickly lead to a physical altercation.
    Man striking a woman in public: China – unlikely that strangers will intervene. May call police if the situation is extreme. Canada – Man would probably get beaten up by strangers, even for a mild physical altercation, people would call police immediately.
    Teenagers acting spoiled in public, being rude/swearing at waitresses, cashiers, etc. Canada – little/no reaction from strangers. China – A mob may quickly collect to shame/punish the offender. Camera phones and human-flesh searches create a cautionary tale.
    I’m sure I could think of more compelling examples if my lunch wasn’t ready.
    Good question though. All laowai wrestle with this issue.

  • outcast

    That men can beat women even in the streets and get away with it is more than adequete testimony as to the inferiority, backwardness and barbarism of chinese culture. Even if the police come, which is rare in China, the probability of anything happening to the barbarian (as in going to jail) is very low. Even if “he” went to jail, at most it would be for a year.
    Women’s rights in China is a myth people. It’s up to us to stand for them, because if we don’t, who will?

  • J.

    @ outcast: Chinese women need to learn to stand up for themselves. Their goal in life is to be “pretty little birds” — even if that means being second-class citizens.
    The white knight syndrome won’t help anyone. It’s interpreted as a foreign thing.

  • I think it’s an interesting question because it puts the “when in Rome”/cultural-sensitivity impulse to the test; it reveals people’s value priorities and prompts people to question where their values come from. It’s also interesting to see what we do when we don’t have time to think first!
    In this situation the women was ‘asking for it’, but I’m curious if Aaron (#3) would still think the answer is a simple “don’t interfere” if it were a small child being beaten in public by an out-of-control parent (my wife, myself, friends, and coworkers all have our own experiences of witnessing this in China), or if the woman was less of a provocateur. Or if it was someone bleeding to death in the road (happened outside our language school, and our Chinese teachers told everyone to just keep on walking). In all those cases, Chinese locals will typically not intervene. Do we do as the Romans do? Or do we hold stronger values that trump cultural sensitivity (which I value) when they’re in conflict?
    For comparison, we witnessed a somewhat similar situation on the Vancouver Skytrain: a homeless guy punched a homeless women who’d been provoking him, and people instantly intervened, holding the guy down and cussing him out until the police arrived (

  • Chip

    I have gotten involved with these kinds of altercations, several times, and everytime I am told by the cowardly bystanders afterwards that what I did was RIGHT. Always doing everything based on cultural norms means losing a bit of yourself and at the same time, contributing to a cultural norm that is wrong.

  • outcast

    “@ outcast: Chinese women need to learn to stand up for themselves. Their goal in life is to be “pretty little birds” — even if that means being second-class citizens.
    The white knight syndrome won’t help anyone. It’s interpreted as a foreign thing. ”
    The only way they will ever learn to stand up for themselves is if we teach them. The only reason they have the rights they have is because it was simply handed to them by the government in accordance with communist tradition. The real enemy is chinese culture itself, and this is one of its products. It’s also an apt demonstration of why “cultural sensitivity” is simply an excuse to tolerate things we would never tolerate in our own society.

  • I supposed some have already seen this: police car ignores an accident victim laying bleeding in the road