Last night, I walked to the subway station near Renmin Park. There was as usual a file of Chinese lately leaving offices and shops about Tianfu Square and its environs, completing–by train–the circuit of their day . To home, to switch out like a light. On the sidewalk outside the station, a mist settled onto the concrete and light collected in its wet concavities like an artist’s palette.
In front of me, an e-bike rider came to a cursing halt as he nearly drove over a man who lay supine on the pavement, with his legs extended into the street. The rider backed up and shook his head before pulling around the unconscious man and driving away. Behind, the invalid lay with his arms stretched out, a vacant-eyed Vetruvian man with liquid around his mouth, staring emptily into the trees above. I thought he must be dead at first, but periodically he closed and opened his eyes in slow, wet, reptilian nictations. His eyes leaked down the sides of his face, onto a fleece-lined corduroy jacket.
One imagines he was an office bee of some sort, down because of the dissolution a romance–as it always is–who had taken himself out to drink alone and landed himself there. Had I come 20 minutes earlier, I might have found a belligerent, but this fellow was as placid as a bread slice floating in a saucer of milk. The Chinese reaction to him is perfectly natural if one knows the Chinese prior for such occasions: to help someone on the street is to open oneself to liability. As an Anglo, though, my natural ethnocentrism is unfortunately somewhat universalized. We are always too trusting.
I hesitated near him for a time as people walked by, glancing momentarily, pulling their children closer to them. Finally, the buildup gave over to a cascade and I could no more control myself than the ball set to roll from a hilltop. At the man’s side, a phone had fallen from his unzipped side pocket, so I spoke to him in his language as I knelt, saying “friend, your phone…” and putting it back for him, sure that I was seen clearly in the act. Then, a hesitation…should I put the man against a tree so that he doesn’t drown in his own vomit? Pull his legs out of the street? I couldn’t bring myself to go so far as to touch him. I thought that might elicit a response; already I supposed myself to look naive to the crowd, now they had formed. Now there was something to see. I rose, and walked away.
At the end of this tiny gesture, I felt no relief. To know that one’s breeding and cultural instincts can be subverted in this way, so that one is willing to help a stranger–despite knowing the risk–when even his own countrymen pass him by, is to understand why Paris and London no longer exist or that the extreme case of oneself is two Scandinavian girls allowed to wander around the mountains of Morocco together, to be raped and then beheaded by Muslims.