Last Monday I spent the day with my friend Robert Lio and his wife Xiao up in rural Rongshui County just north of Liuzhou. Robert and his family were making a quick stop in Liuzhou during their whirlwind spring tour of China and we had a nice, albeit short visit. We met some Rongshui locals and got some cool shots in the Guangxi countryside before making our way back to the city just before sunset. We quickly put together some loose plans for a visit during the fall then said our goodbyes. They dropped me off in the city center and I began to walk across the Liujiang Bridge toward the house. I had decided to keep the camera out thinking maybe I might come across something on the way home. About a quarter of the way across the bridge I came across this.
At first I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I mean the boy’s posture was so nonchalant, talking on his cell while standing on the railing of the bridge, that my brain just wasn’t connecting the dots. Also, there was nobody making any effort to talk to the kid or stop him in any way. For that matter, except for a couple of curious glances, it seemed nobody was even looking at him. Folks were just walking by going about their business as if there wasn’t a kid precariously perched on a bridge railing 200 feet above the Liujiang River. Dumbstruck, I instinctively raised the camera and fired off three shots before going over to talk to the boy.
I asked him what he was doing (yeah I know… duh) and reached out to him and asked him to come down. He was totally non-responsive. He never looked at me or acknowledged me in any way.
I looked around to finally see some folks taking notice. I asked some young people to call 110 (China’s 911). I am telling you not a single soul on that bridge made a move for their cell. The despondent boy then climbed down to the outside edge of the bridge, turned away from us facing the setting sun, looked down and casually tossed his phone into the river. I could see by his body language and the look on his face that he was serious. He was getting ready, taking long deep breaths. I looked back at the small group nearby and they were just standing there, paralyzed, staring back at me. I punched in 110 myself and did my best to make the emergency operator understand that a boy was about to jump off the bridge. Now I am the first to admit that my Chinese stinks but this was fairly simple, or so I thought. Maybe I was too excited,. Maybe I simply got it all wrong but for whatever reason I could not make myself understood. Exasperated, I resorted to repeating over and over “liujiang qiao” (Liujiang Bridge). Still, nothing from the other end of the phone. I pleaded, I kid you not, I pleaded with standers-by to talk to the police. I asked at least 6 different people to take my phone. Not one would do it. Some actually backed away from me, waving their hands and shaking their heads before rushing off down the bridge. By then there were at least 15 people curiously watching me. A few even had goofy grins on their faces. I am serious when I say this, no one was watching the boy.
The phone still in my hand I turned again to the rail to see that the kid was gone! I quickly found him flailing mid-air, plummeting toward the river and then watched as he broke the surface with an audible smack. I yelled into the phone, of course in English now, “He jumped! He’s jumped from the bridge!”. Looking around I made eye contact with a young girl of about 20 or so, again pleading with her to take the phone. This time she did and calmly spoke to the operator before handing the phone back with a smile and a very clear “Thank you…” in English. It felt so odd, the smile, the “thank you”. It had taken just 8 minutes. 8 minutes from the time I took the first photo until I hung up the phone. It felt like an hour. I was in my own little Fellini movie, wading through the red jello that can sometimes be China.
The boy quickly popped up to the surface and appeared to be swimming with the current before disappearing again under the bridge. I think he must be OK as friends tell me there has been no mention of the incident in the Liuzhou papers or on local TV. I certainly hope he is OK and that he finds some way of coming to grips with the issues that prompted the leap.
That being said, as disturbing as it was to watch the incident unfold I have to say I am more disturbed with the apathy displayed by those witnessing the event. No one on that bridge was willing to help prevent that kid from jumping. Not one person said a word to him. No one made a move toward him. In fact, quite the contrary, most just kept walking right on by. Only after he had gone over the edge did anyone agree to take my phone. Of course, I am feeling guilty too, wondering now if I did enough myself. We are often told here, as foreign nationals, to not get involved in any situations like this. I always have a hard time making that choice and trust me if you are here long enough you are gong to have to make that choice one day. I actually got into a little trouble last year by getting myself involved, preventing a bicycle theft in a crowded street market. Of course the kid whose bike was being stolen was very grateful but my thanks included an official very stern warning to never do anything like that again. I was thinking about that warning while watching the kid on the bridge. Still, if I had it to do over again, I would have put down my camera and my bag full of lenses and just grabbed the kid to deal with the consequences later. Not to sound callous but if I had put down the camera and bag I give the odds at no better than 50/50 as to whether or not someone would have taken off with them. Now I wasn’t thinking about that consciously but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that the thought may have been there sub-consciously and that may account for some of my hesitation.
I have thought long and hard about even posting this piece. I am no doubt going to “hurt some feelings”. So, before any fervent nationalist or old-hand Laowai want to take this opportunity to tell me just how much I don’t understand about China let me make an attempt to head you off at the pass. I don’t do a lot of China bashing here on this blog, there are plenty of others doing that already. It’s not that I don’t have an opinion. It’s just that I usually find it’s all been said before by writers who are much more eloquent and can present the subject matter in an interesting and entertaining way, certainly more so that I am capable of. I don’t always agree with the pundits but I often find the various blog commentaries dead-on, sometimes humorous, almost always interesting and all too often sad. I long ago gave up on ever completely understanding China. Yet, like many of my fellow expatriates, I have come to love this country warts and all. Of course there are problems here just like there are problems back home. No one place or country or group of people are unique in that aspect. What is unique here, is that the suicide rate in China is about 50% higher than the global average. A recent two-year survey by researchers at Peking University found over 20 percent of 140,000 high-school students interviewed said they had considered committing suicide and another recent study by health authorities in Foshan, Guangdong Province, found that 17 percent of junior high school girls had contemplated suicide.
Now all that being said, this whole apathetic approach, that “none of my business” -“I don’t want to get involved” mentality that is all too often displayed here is, again, disturbing. Is the same attitude displayed in New York, Sydney, Paris or London? Of course. It is indeed, but it does not happen with the regularity I see on display here. I have witnessed it more times than I can remember and I can’t for the life of me figure it out. Maybe is it fear-based. Again, I admit I just don’t know. Perhaps it is one of those cultural mindsets unique to China that I am never going to understand. I hope I continue to grow while in China. I hope I can continue to evolve in my thinking, that I remain open-minded to the possibility that I don’t know it all and that my understanding of the world may not be as complete as I would sometimes like to think. I also hope that for however long I do live here, I don’t ever lose my empathy. I also hope the people of China can find their empathy and hold onto it for an amount of time longer than it takes to forget about something like the tragedy of a devastating earthquake.
Oh, and one more thought…
For any of you 110 operators out there, if a laowai calls and repeats the name of a bridge over and over, it’s probably a good idea to just send somebody to the blasted bridge!
ADDENDUM: As I suspected, this post has fueled a lot of opinion and commentary. A lot of it is insightful and well thought out. It’s coming from a lot of different places and most of it has been pretty civil. I don’t agree with all of it as frankly some of it is rubbish. A lot of it just adds fuel to my “I’ll never understand why” fire. Except for the most vile and rude, I’ve posted almost all of the comments here giving folks their say while reserving the right to respond in kind, especially if you try and explain away the events by simply saying I didn’t see what I saw. I was there, I know what I saw. I KNOW people understood what was happening and I KNOW some of them understood me. Also, IF you leave a comment here and you have the temerity to blast someone else’s thoughts, ideas or perceptions, at least have the courage to not do so anonymously. You’re probably not going to get published otherwise. This post is fast running it’s course. I am near certain we are not going to “figure it all out” on my little photo blog. It’s a subject that’s been debated for many years already and unfortunately it’s gonna’ be in debate for many years to come.
~ by Expatriate Games on April 24, 2009.
Posted in china, documentary, expat, expatriate, life in china, liuzhou, photography, photojournalism, social condition
Tags: china, culture, documentary, expat, expatriate, life in china, liuzhou, photography, photojournalism, photos, street