In my rambling entry on Primate Morality a few days ago, I talked about an "American Moment" when I got frustrated with Chinese drivers driving recklessly in an area close to my children’s school. And, in this little rant on morality, I discussed the manufacture by Chinese counterfeiters of counterfeit antimalarial drugs. For some, ethics seems as an obscure, intellectual pursuit unrelated to real life. Not me. I see morality echoed in almost every aspect of daily life, because every decision reflects values. Such as the value one culture does or does not place on human life, or on individuality versus collectivism, or even fatalism versus self determination.
Well, I have been witness this week to still more clashes in the culture department, and I found myself having another "American Moment" on the way to my children’s school again. Once again, crossing the small residential street between my house and the school was too dangerous. When we were 3/4 of the way across the street, a car sped around the curve and appeared to be heading exactly to the lane we were occupying, since the car was going so fast it couldn’t possibly have stayed in its own lane on the right side of the street. Munchkin’s immediate impulse was to run, so I was glad I was holding her hand.
In China, it is "normal" for pedestrians to walk through traffic like this. The cars expect it and drive on either side of the pedestrian. In fact, some pedestrians are so unconcerned about traffic that they don’t even look before stepping into the street. Because of this unspoken expectation, in China, as in probably most of southeastern Asia, the most important thing is for a pedestrian to walk slowly and deliberately, so the car drivers can anticpate exactly where you will be. My closest analogy traffic in China, for someone who hasn’t experienced it, might be a crowded roller or ice rink on a Saturday afternoon. Everyone pretty much goes in the same direction, but there are no clear lanes and people mostly just flow around each other. Here, it is expected that the traffic will flow, and the car of course would alter its course to avoid hitting us and think nothing of it. The worst thing Munchkin could have done was to run, because by doing so she might have run into a path of a car that was altering its course to flow around her.
On the other hand, the pedestrian is relying heavily on the driver not to make a mistake. In China, approximately 100,000 people are killed on the roadways each year, with another 400,000 reported injuries. Living here, in this culture, we are subject to the cultural norms that result in such carnage on the highways. Which brings me round to my first paragraph: what is the value of an individual, human life? At risk of making sweeping, sophmoric proclomations, it seems to me that in China the collective need always trumps the individual, no matter what the human cost to the individual.
I remember when my high school history class studied the Korean Conflict, we watched a film which showed scantily clad Chinese prisoners of war, freezing and suffering from frostbite in the fierce Korean winter. The American commanders were shocked and appalled that the Chinese government would send soldiers out so poorly equipped, but they were also astounded that the waves of new soldiers were never-ending. The thought expressed in the film was a hypothesis that there were so many people in China, they could afford such staggering losses. I think McCarthy, McArthur, and Eisenhower got it all wrong and made huge mistakes as a result (just as George Bush gets it wrong today). Nevertheless, there may be one grain of truth in what they were sensing: the collective need trumped any individual interest and the Chinese generals would do whatever it took to meet the collective need. Just as knowing and foolhardy as the scenes of Poles using horse drawn chariots to defend Poland against Hitler’s Panzer tanks. The Poles weren’t stupid. They knew they would be slaughtered. But what else were they to do. Similarly, the Chinese were clearly acting in accord with their values in sending hundreds of thousands of men to their certain death in the freezing blizzards of the Korean winter. (That war reputedly resulted in the loss of about 600,000 Chinese lives.)
In the USA, we place great emphasis on the individual and the value of each individual. I have "my rights" and "my freedoms." Not so, here. And as for fatalism versus self determination? Again, it’s very different. We Americans are raised to think, however mistakenly, that each of us has an opportunity to "make a difference." We think we have some say in our destiny. Here, on the other hand, destiny is seen as largely written in the stars and unmoveable by individual action. People are conditioned from birth not to question the "system." Schools teach children to memorize facts and procedures, not how to question and challenge and be inquisitive.
There’s a scene in the book The Monkey King, by Timothy Mo (see book list, this blog, for link), in which the uncle mentors his young nephew to think for himself and to ask challenging, probing questions. He enourages the nephew to engage his teacher in discussion, and he thinks the teacher will be impressed with the knowledge and interest shown by the young pupil. Instead of receiving applause from the teacher, the youngster returns home with his hands in bandages. The teacher had been so upset with the youngster’s impertinence in asking questions that he had whacked his knuckles with a ruler. Such is the fate of those who challenge the status quo in China. Lawyers who dare to defend litigants in civil rights cases are jailed, beaten up by thugs, and their cars overturned. Most people never rise to this level of "insubordination." They just don’t realize things could be different. In fact, most people never challenge the system far enough to rub up against the bars on the cage.
Pedestrians crossing the street don’t question whether things could be different, they just accept it that they will have to deal with cars and trust the drivers to part and make a path for them. The very fact that I would get upset about this just goes to show how very "American" I am in my embedded ways of thinking.