This July I took a six-day trip to China. When my flight from Shenzhen to Beijing finally landed after a 13-hour delay, everybody was relieved and eager to get off the plane. I noticed a young petite woman who had sat near me struggled to get her carry-on luggage from the overhead bin. I reached up and brought her luggage down while the people surrounding us watched. She thanked me and we went our separate ways.
During the long delay in Shenzhen, I struck up a casual conversation in Mandarin with a woman from Beijing who was about a decade older than me. Although we didn’t sit together on the flight, we re-connected on the tarmac as we waited for the shuttle bus to the terminal. I told her that I helped someone with her luggage on the plane, and she replied, “What you should have done,” she continued, “was to tell the men standing around to go assist her.”
When I heard her response, the feminist in me screamed, “Why would I ask a man to help while I am perfectly able and capable?” The interculturalist, on the other hand, asserted, “Do as the locals do.” After returning to the U.S., I discussed this incident with colleagues at Duke. Turned out that one of them had a similar experience in Europe: “I was six month pregnant and nobody offered to help me. I had to get all the luggage down by myself,” she said.
Then I talked to a graduate student from China who has spent five years working in Beijing. He explained that Chinese people are reluctant to offer assistance to strangers because of several highly publicized legal cases. He also pointed out that because I am an American, I don’t have to worry about being extorted or prosecuted. “It would cause an international incident, and we don’t want that,” he said semi-jokingly.
What would you do? How do you decide whether to help or not to help others in need? I’d love to hear from you.