December 06, 2008

Don't Know Why I Do The Things I Do

This scene is played out every day somewhere in Taiwan, but thankfully not so often in front of me. A man pulls his wife from the car by a fistful of hair while the other hand strikes at her with a cell phone, a shoe, a sandwich. A crowd gathers. The faces say, "Oh, what a shame," and "such a loss of face."

The faces with eyes that see are attached to heads with skulls which protect brains which command limbs to move and speech to come forth, but such impassive faces behave as if the last 30 minutes of a Steven Segal movie on AXN are hindering their internal debate on whether to have noodles or fried rice take out for dinner.

I'm writing this as an observation of how things are NOW in TAIWAN with a dose of cultural arrogance that in MY country on the side of the planet where I was born, this sort of thing would not stand. If I close my eyes real tight, I believe that at some point in my upbringing, we looked out for one another and I'm not just remembering the Hallmark version of existence.

I've lived here for nine years this month and just as I know that I will always be an outsider, I see myself as a passive observer of events and blog sporadically as a way of venting my frustrations with culture shock. The blogosphere is a pillow into which I scream. I don't have a thing, it's just, you know.... Up to this point, when confronted with the spectacle of public domestic violence, I've been a disgusted observer but have contented myself in dilluting the disgust with snark.

A few weeks back, there was an incident at the doctor's office. A ten year old girl didn't want to have a shot--afraid of needles, just like my boy. The mother, as we all sat and watched, grabbed the girl by the hair and beat her senseless with the other hand, at one point pounding the girl's head into the wall.

Shocked that all of this was going on within three meters of the doctor (note to self, look up Hippocratic Oath + Taiwan) and while all of his support staff and shocked patients looked on, I did nothing but hold my kids tight and tell them that I loved them both very much but not all boys and girls have someone to look out for them. I also asked how to say, "For the sake of your daughter, I hope you get breast cancer," but to her credit, my wife wouldn't translate, telling me it was the wrong thing to say. I'll admit to thinking it over and again to myself for a few minutes.

What burns me though, is that in these public situations when somone is obviously in need of assistance and there are human beings within reach of offering such, it doesn't happen. As closely packed as we are on this island, we insulate ourselves and refuse to reach out to make contact with a stranger who could benefit from it.

And here's me, the hyperjudgemental Westerner damning those rubberneckers left and right without lifting a finger on my own.

Each time I pound my palm with my fist and jab the air with my forefinger, declaring that this would NEVER be accepted in my country, by Jah, I am patiently reminded that we're NOT in America and people here just don't care because they don't.

Perhaps one doesn't need to look too far to see reasons to fear helping strangers. The White Terror that gripped the island for decades is not a far-distant memory for many people who recall a time when helping the wrong person could ruin your life. Plus, there are so many gangsters running around unfettered that helping someone who is getting their ass kicked just might result in you getting your own ass kicked.

Anyway, this evening, the dog and I were out for a walk, heading to the laundry. As we came around a corner, we noticed a crowd gathered near a car that was parked sickly askew. A man whose grip had found the scalp of his spouse in losing himself was in teh middle of a ring of people who told me that nothing was wrong when I asked. "That's his wife," said a guy about my age, pointing at a woman whose face I never saw, but who cried out with anguish at each tug as her husband tried to pull her up the stairs into the building.

A quick check was enough to convince me that these were not gangsters roughing up a hooker, but a case of domestic violence in which one or both of the parties involved were not communicating very well at the moment. Leica, the wonder beagle went to work and licked the face of the woman, giving me my introduction. I pulled the man up by the shoulders and placed myself between him and his target. He looked to be about 60 years old and wore a mask such as is common for people to wear on cold or heavily polluted days when they're riding their scooters.

I had at least a 30kg advantage over the guy who never once made eye contact with me, his eyes overflowing with rage. His shoulders were very tense and he tried to get around me to continue what he'd been doing before some idiot interrupted him. He was shouting in Taiwanese so I have no clue what was going on, but after shouting "Hare Krishna" at him a few times, I kept reassuring him that I wasn't going to hurt him and that he just needed to breathe. I told him he was a man and that real men don't hit women. Whatever was going on in his family obviously none of my business and I didn't want to hear. At some point, I caught a glimpse of his wife running down the street and around the corner out of sight. I patted him on the back and tried to let him know that everything was going to be ok and it was ok to calm down. He eventually did and went inside.

I'm not sharing this for any kind of recognition of my skill as a peacekeeper. Immediately after the disturbance, I was shaking like ... one of those electric football games from the '70's...but I was asking myself why I had gotten involved this time. I didn't know any of the people involved; it was not really even my neighborhood. After every other time that I see this sort of thing happen, I feel like such a coward for not doing anything at all, and I recognize that I did this for the purely selfish reason that I did not want to look at myself in the mirror again tomorrow knowing that I could have done something but hadn't.

I had to explain to Maggie why I was so late coming back from the walk and I told her what had transpired. She sort of rolled her eyes and said, a Taiwanese man would never do that. "But Why Not?" I continue to ask. I want other people to see me in super hero mode and think to themselves that they can do it too. Again, Maggie sadly shook her head, "It's because you're a foreigner," she said. Taiwanese men won't stand up in such situations.

It may be the messianic complex that "all" foreigners have, it could be adrenaline, it could be wild-eyed idealism...or it could be the wine...but kiss my ass. If it were my sister, mother, wife, daughter, son, getting beaten, I hope to hell that if weren't there, someone would have the balls to stand up and do what's right!


To report cases of domestic abuse in Taiwan, please phone 113.
The domestic violence help line provides 24 hour emergency assistance in cases of domestic abuse and legal and psychological services for injured parties.


Anonymous said...

As woman of Taiwanese descent born and raised in the United States, my strong desire to appreciate your post (I agree that violence is wrong and bystanders should do whatever is in their power to intervene without putting themselves in physical danger or aggravating the situation) is counterbalanced by my disappointment in your condescending attitude toward Taiwanese culture... and by extension, Taiwanese people. It peeps through, quite obviously, through the ironic tone you adopt. I know that Maggie may believe that what you witnessed is symptomatic of an illness in the culture she grew up in but... with no offense meant, sincerely, to her... that statement in and of itself is proof that she's coming from a very limited perspective. Passivity when around violence is a horrible, horrible illness that afflicts ALL cultures.

I've witnessed a man shoving around his wife in a parking lot, a little girl having her neck grabbed by her sister and head slammed into the metal side of a subway car and a man throwing a woman over and over again against a side of a car... all in the States. In those cases, did anyone do anything? No. In the case of the little girl being beaten by her older sister, a woman leaned over to her as she was getting off the subway and whispered "you don't have to be treated like this." I hope it made an impact on her, but the fact of the matter is, no one pulled her sister off her... and there were several strong, able-bodied men, like you, on that train, who just stared blank-eyed at what was going on.

I was also sexually and verbally abused by my ex (who, since this is relevant to your post, was a white American, born and bred in the Mid-West in a middle class household). While the sexual abuse was private, all my friends and not a few strangers witnessed the verbal abuse... and no one ever told my ex to shut up. No one. Oh, they'd tell him to shut up when he went on one of his long, ill-informed political/pseudo-philosophical rants, but not when he was calling his girlfriend a dumb cunt in public. Did my friends go through the White Terror? No. Do I blame this on white American culture (most of those friends were white Americans... as far as I know, none of their parents or grandparents were immigrants). No, I don't. I blame their paralysis on a combination of stupidity and the kind of cognitive dissonance that sets in when someone you consider a good friend turns out to be an asshole in a very big way. Did I defend myself? Not for a long while. But do I blame this on my Taiwanese cultural heritage? No, I don't. I had the mindset of an abuse victim at that time -- something that is cross-cultural.

There are tons of things wrong with Taiwanese culture, but this is not one of them. The willingness to stand by when you see someone being brutalized is not culture-specific... sad but true. You might want to read this article about Kitty Genovese (who was murdered in Queens, NYC), this wikipedia entry about bystander syndrome, which contains many good links and the entry on diffusion of responsibility.

I am not saying that understanding what is going on from a psychological perspective absolves anyone of moral responsibility when they see someone being brutalized. But I hope that it negates your and Maggie's idea that it is specific to Taiwanese culture and that it erases some of the condescending attitude I felt from your post.

While I am critical of your post, I do not want you to think that I do not admire the fact that you helped an abuse victim out. In the instances of abuse that I witnessed, I might not have been able to do anything physically (I'm tiny and not very strong), but I should have called the police from my cell or, in the subway car, pulled the alarm. However, interfering directly in a situation like this can have the unintended result of putting the victim in further peril by further enraging the abuser. You might have calmed him down temporarily, but God knows what happened when she returned home, as she most likely did (ref: the above article on victim mentality). The best thing to do in this instance is to call the police ASAP and then stayed on, if at all possible, to serve as a witness.

Paul said...

Whoa, I do stand corrected. I certainly remember hearing the story of Kitty Genovese, though at the time of writing my post I didn't recall it. Thank you for including this and setting me straight on a few other things.

If I came across as being condescending towards the Taiwanese culture, it was certainly not my intention. The thing is, as Taiwan is where I have lived for these past years observing the human condition, it is the case that the people on the street that I have the most contact with are Taiwanese.

Condescending attitudes run rampant when fueled by culture shock. My crack at the doctor was harsh--he has treated every member of our family and is a man of considerable intellect and kindness. I only mentioned him to demonstrate what I conceived as the contrast between my preconception of a doctor's role/duty based on growing up watching medical dramas on the tv, and what I saw as a failure to stand up to my likely overinflated expectations. I didn't mean to label this dear man a "Taiwanese Doctor" in such a way as to paint him with a brush of ineptitude, if this is where the perception of ineptitude came from. I am, in fact, curious if the Hippocratic Oath that I remember from M*A*S*H is subscribed to in Taiwan, having no reason to believe either way.

I have never witnessed the horrible scenes you described in America--thank goodness--but I do not doubt that they exist. Since I hadn't seen them, I wouldn't know about crowd reaction. But, I should have remembered the Genovese case.

Now, as for my attempt to reason why there might be a predisposition towards non-interdiction in my country of residence because of the White Terror of the Fifties and Sixties in Taiwan, let me explain that this was not a wild-eyed assumption of an idealistic or insanely cynical foreigner, but an attempt to place into a nutshell the discussions I've had with students and others over the years about the period.

During the White Terror--I'm told, as I wasn't here--if I were to intervene in a domestic dispute and cause a loss of face, it is likely that the loser of face would call the police and tell them that I had been reading Marx or had been plotting against the government and I would be in danger of being whisked away and disappeared. This is one possible explanation as to why people remain bystanders here where I'm at.

I have to run off to teach a class in Dali at the moment, but I want to thank you for your comments and criticism, and especially for reminding me of the possible consequences for the victim of the assault when she returned home. I had not thought of this and it weighs heavily on my heart.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your response and how receptive you are to my comment, especially considering the fact that I wrote it when I was upset.

You bring up some interesting points about the White Terror and I do agree with you that I would have been shocked if I had seen the doctor not intervene (especially since in the U.S. I believe he would have been legally obligated to call the police had he seen evidence of child abuse... and obviously a mother beating her child in his office is pretty solid evidence).

As for the situation you intervened in... it's really, really hard to figure out what to do when you are caught off guard by a situation where turning a blind eye seems morally reprehensible. I hope that perhaps the woman realized that what was happening to her is in fact abuse and not just a spousal tiff and will seek help. I appreciate that you included resources for abuse victims/witnesses to call at the end of your entry.