Once upon a bus boat in Guangxi, my then girlfriend and I were catching a ride back to Yangshuo from the countryside. The boat was small and cramped with two rows of passengers shoulder to shouldering it on opposite long sides of the room. We’d paid barely anything for the ride, and the fare had filled the modest vessel with mostly small-towners if not peasants in the literal sense. We were the main attraction – two white women with backpacks and skinny jeans, one broader in jaw and shoulder than most had seen, the other covered in tattoos, piercings, and everything else “alternative.”
Eyes followed us as we sat down, and only after a few minutes of awkwardly confirming that we were in fact sitting in front of them eyes found the corners of the vessel as best they could. The windows were too high to see much besides the sky so not staring at someone became something challenging. My partner and I did our best to play the same game.
Perhaps 15 minutes into the ride or so, my partner and I began to hear a strange noise we couldn’t place at first. Clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk… Heavy enough it might have been metallic, but with a quality that said otherwise. Couldn’t be plastic or wood with the reverberations we could feel through the floor either. Clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk… We wondered whether it was a problem with the engine or perhaps we’d hit something on the river shallows. Eventually, our wondering eyes found the source. A chicken was wrapped in a mesh bag with a hole just large enough for its head to stick through on the floor. Attending to it was a child of 5 or 6 sitting beside it raising and felling a large rock on the chicken’s skull.
Clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk…
The chicken’s eyes were open and its tongue moved (perhaps lolled) slightly with breath. It was alive, but not struggling against its fate. It didn’t (or couldn’t) struggle away from the bag, and the child’s other hand held it firm anyways. The child looked almost bored as it struck the animal again and again.
My partner and I eyed each other widely and stifled the instinctual gasps. We looked to the child’s mother sitting on the bench above him chatting with another woman. They seemed completely disinterested in the child’s antics. We looked around to the other passengers for some recognition of “Oh my God. I know right?”, but we found none. Eventually, we were forced to resign ourselves to trying not to look at the act of unchecked pointless violence for the rest of the painfully long ride.
I needn’t say here (but I am anyways) that I’m strongly against animal cruelty like many of the granola hippy, white, expats I count myself among, but I’m especially against the needlessness thereof. My blood boiled at the lesson this child’s mother was teaching him about the meaningless of life and the insignificance of suffering. I was aghast at the casualness with which the scene proceeded unquestioned. I felt the burn of guilt that perhaps I was complicit in the pain and suffering of a living being, albeit one I’d happily eat if Kentucky Fried. But ultimately I was confronted with two challenges I know all too well from my time in China.
1 - Should I try to change the situation?
The most resounding answer to this question is the standard stock one echoed by our managers, friends, college teachers, and textbooks the world over – “It’s not your culture.” Given that it’s not our culture, who are we to seek to change it? Would I rush in to save every chicken from every wet market in China as Chris Tucker comically did in Rush Hour? Should I lecture the mother about the violence she was perpetuating and the major sign of sociopathy that she was ignoring? Should I strive to be the change I wish to see in the world by walking over and killing the chicken outright rather than forcing it to endure until its head was chopped off later that night for dinner. Would the child’s father thank me for my intervention? Of course not.
I passionately identify as a cultural relativist believing no culture to be inherently better than any other. This means I believe ourselves to be the only ones we can justifiably judge. Furthermore, I believe the best, most rational, and most compassionate approach to any culture one doesn’t understand to be giving the benefit of the doubt and trying to learn a bit more.
Moments like these, I curse my beliefs despite the value I give to them.
At other times in China, I’ve seen domestic disputes in public where boyfriends beat up on girlfriends throwing and striking them forcefully. I’ve felt the same urge to jump in and be the rescuing hero, but I know better. I know what reward I could expect from what individuals and locals the world over have confirmed – I would find no gratitude for my actions.
I’ve gotten into arguments with friends and lovers about the nature of democratic actions such as protesting, boycotting, and the powerful effects they’ve had throughout history. I’ve argued that at a certain point the Chinese people will be forced to make the decision that enough is enough. Yet as even I admitted in my final paper on modern Chinese politics back in Uni, there are different priorities that weigh more in the developing nation with 250 years of conflict and war looming over it. Me insisting about the inevitability of Democratization only serves to label me for my white, American privilege and the biased political scientists I’d read.
Like it or not, Huntington is right that I am a product of “Western Civilization.” My views, experiences, even non-denominational upbringing and musical tastes all place me firmly on another side of the fence from families who survived the Cultural and Communist revolutions, from those who were forced to invest their hopes and welfare on the 1 child responsible for caring for the family, and from those I found on the boat that day.
It might have felt good to stand up against senseless violence and maybe I could have even taught the child a lesson I believed in, but at what cost? Reenacting the unequal treaties forced upon Imperial China more than a hundred years ago? Coloring forever westerners as egocentric cowboys in the eyes of my fellow passengers? Losing the respect of my partner and myself for choosing righteousness over respect?
I knew the answer then. That left me with the arguably greater of two questions to answer:
2 - How should I assimilate this experience into my knowledge and views of this country, that region, and these people?
I’ve told this story to a number of my friends and the reaction is always one of disgust. My western friends sometimes take the story as a proof to the lack of respect for life and compassion inherent to the modern Chinese civilization. My Chinese friends ask me not to take the experience as an indicator for what this country and its people are like. Yet in that situation both my western partner and I as well as the Chinese people on the boat did nothing. Rather, we all tried as hard as we could to not acknowledge what the child was doing.
It’s tempting when confronted with a society so unlike the one I grew up with to assume that the greatest peculiarities are due to the biggest differences in environment; that it’s just a Chinese thing. It feels good to stand on the righteous side of a line and the explanation fits neatly into the box of my limited world perspective. Conversely, it feels uncomfortable and scary to refuse to make a judgement about those around me; like I’m choosing to not learn something from my experiences. Yet, after years of reflection on moments like this one, I know that the harder way is the best way. I won’t say the “right way” because that’s precisely the most damaging and limiting term I could use in this situation.
The Fundamental Attribution Error posits that we by our ability only to see into our own minds are biased towards interpreting our own behavior as the product of our environment, and that of others as the product of their nature. The fact is I’ll never know what the people on that boat were thinking. I’ll never really know what my partner was thinking then either. So the best answer to my second question I can think of is, “It happened, I don’t know why, and I never will.” It will bias me as all of my experience will do, but I won’t let the conscious decisions I make because of these experiences add to my blindnesses.
Thinking of a boat ride now, once upon a time. I don’t think anymore that that was a day I learned something about China. I think instead, that that was a day I began to understand something about my place in it.