China – Under The Hood: Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil

Yesterday’s autumnal afternoon was typical of late: drizzling, murky and, if you found yourself in the middle of Hangzhou’s snarling traffic, chaotic. Thanks to a very impressive and convenient public bicycle system, I was cycling along minding my own business when, without warning, a real nasty piece of work, the local equivalent of a Hell’s Angel on an electric-bicycle, the ultimate street menace, tried to squeeze in front of the metre distance separating my pedal bicycle and the plastic bollard dividing our bicycle lane from the regular traffic lane. Unluckily for me his sudden, impulsive, totally devoid of conscience, maneuver was never going to work and I came off much worse in what was another surreal Hangzhou moment.

Within a flash there’s spread-eagled me and a mangled bicycle sprawled on the grimy black surface. The first thought to enter my mind was whether I should get up and strangle him? Meanwhile, the peloton of E-bikes and bicycles behind me had stopped. Waiting in readiness:

Urchin, with the jumpy smile, and everyone else from ‘rent a crowd’, was impassively staring at me waiting for me to pick myself up. Not one helping hand 漠不关心 (‘mo bu guan xin’ or “completely unmoved or indifferent) as I lay there.

Amid the spectators and the ‘raring to go’ din of more and more impatient bicycle bells, honking e-bike and motorised tricycle horns and blackboard screeching brakes no more than two or three metres behind me, I could hear the repeated words “你看他是老外!”, or simply “老外!” (‘ni kan ta shi lao wai’ a derogatory term for “foreigner”, “look he’s a foreigner!”).

As soon as I managed to shove the bicycle a few inches out of the way with my foot the horde was once again on the move, cautiously filing through the narrow gap I had created, all wearing the same sheepish gaze I have witnessed so many times while living in China: The ‘Three Wise Monkeys’ code of silence ― ‘Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.’ What happens to a stranger outside their immediate comfort zone of family and friends is none of their business, so best to flee rather than be blamed for any injuries the “老外” lao wai may have sustained.

No doubt I’d be the topic of conversation amid the cacophony of slurps over their next bowl of noodles. Now looking back, I am rather surprised that for added conversational embellishment one of the quick thinking onlookers didn’t have the ‘cop on’ to take out her iPhone and snap a photo of me sprawled on roadside with wrecked bicycle. On second thoughts such an exercise would have risked losing the Teacup Poodle peeking out of her designer handbag. In any case, I seriously doubt that any conversation about me would have decried the pathetic apathy or laziness of the renmin who left me on the ground, not bothering to offer any assistance: 漠不关心.

China Under The Hood - Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil - Something like 1,000,000 electric bicycles stalk the streets of Hangzhou
Something like 1,000,000 electric bicycles stalk the streets of Hangzhou

As for me I finally made my way to the hospital.

I couldn’t wrap up this exposé from the harmonious society of Hangzhou without a special mention about local hospitality as witnessed yesterday: Mind numbing, really touching indeed. It certainly gives a special resonance to the recent incident down in Foshan City where little Wang Yue was run over by two vans and ignored by 18 passers-by

The ethic of the jungle ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,’ looking out for yourself, may have been expedient in the dark days of Mao Zedong’s revolution. However, here in a China subjected to dramatic economic and social changes in nearly all aspects of life on an unprecedented scale, the gazes of indifference and lack of compassion for a fellow human being, as witnessed yesterday, patently reveal a public engulfed by a great moral vacuum, empty of imagination, hope and of any future… not really the hallmarks of a harmonious society.

Does not being Chinese mean I can never understand China?

You’re not Chinese, you don’t understand Chinese culture” said Mr H.

He armed with his Cappuccino and I with my Latte. I recall it was about four minutes into this our first ever meeting, my eyes having hit upon the clock mounted on the wall behind him.  Now where have I heard that remark lots of times before? Hmm.

We were installed in the Mint Bar of Dublin‘s swish Westin and Mr.H, a tall Manchurian from the city of Dalian, was on a mission to make a big impression. Brimming with over-confidence, which a casual observer would have mistaken for cocky arrogance, he was doing his level best to convince me why I should be collaborating with him, the top dog, in a new China business venture (Yes, another iffy agent trying to make a quick monetary return from the 1000s of Liaoning students who come to Ireland each year to study English). OK, so my new 28 year old-ish acquaintance had been living in Ireland for the past nine years, and spoke English with a light Dublin brogue (an accent I couldn’t quite equate with the Trinity College Masters Degree strum I’d have expected).  I certainly don’t speak with a Hangzhou accent.

Perhaps I needed him, then again, perhaps not. Indeed.

Mr. H, I have been thinking about that remark…


I’ve been in and out of the China part of the world practically half my life, which is a friggin long time, yet the more I learn about China I realise the less I know about China. Ok, so each experience and insight has cultivated my China awareness a little bit more, but still there are thousands of doors in front of me, impatiently waiting to be opened by providence. It’s a feeling similar to a fantasy, thinking I’ve become an expert on something only to realise I’ve actually only captured a small part of the knowledge available. To think I’ve even come close to enlightenment in China, Mr H, is a delusion at best.  Yet, I try to keep in mind that my world is limited by what I know and there is always more to learn. Do you Mr. H?

Perhaps your understanding of Chinese culture helps you to close your mind so as to believe there is only one right way. That Mr. H is the kind of Big Brother ‘Party Line‘ understanding that makes people boring,mechanical and mindless.


Ah yes the Party Line, otherwise known as propaganda? Is this your culture Mr. H? Maybe what you call culture I call, for the most part, a half truth – propaganda.  Wouldn’t it be fair to say the State and Party machines in China have created the truths (that you hold to be absolute) by which your culture is defined. In other words: Propaganda?

You see I think you have this black and white opinion of us lao wai (or non-Chinese, foreigners): Because we dare to constantly challenge the half-truths you label us as misunderstanding your culture.

This is not to say that we lao wai have it right and you Chinese have it wrong.  Even in Ireland, on a daily basis, we find ourselves challenging the information we call news, which is increasingly controlled by a small number of major media tycoons pushing their own agendas. We’ll find “Irish culture” hidden between the lines, but we need to delve deep.

Oh and by the way Mr. H, I forgot to mention the small detail that you’ve only spent 19 years of your life in China. Do you understand Chinese culture?