The stubbornness of laowai

Captain Ahab in China – by Decater Collins


With yet another story of expats behaving badly making the rounds, I’ve been thinking of my own angry encounters on the streets of Beijing. I have plenty of incidents from my thirteen years here, including a near fist fight with a taxi driver who wanted to extort me for only going to Dongzhimen from the airport, and the near-death experience of getting sideswiped on my bike by the Australian ambassador.

One time in 2005 nearly ended in tragedy. I was biking up a hutong street minding my own business when a woman swerved into me as I was passing her. She was knocked to the ground and I was pushed out into the path of an oncoming pedicab. Luckily, I was on a mountain bike rather than a cheap fixie and I managed to regain balance and get out of the way before I was decapitated.

Looking behind me, I saw the woman picking herself up off the ground. Rather than beating a hasty retreat, I returned to see if she was okay. That was my mistake. She accused me of knocking her over, rambling off a string of Beijinghua dialect too fast for me to comprehend, while I repeated ni da wo – you hit me. As a crowd formed around us, I tried to leave. She latched onto my jacket. It became obvious that the only way we would resolve this argument was with the intervention of the authorities.

I’ll spare you the details that I’m sure any long-time expat in China will be familiar with. The demands of large cash payouts for phantom injuries. The disinterested police who wanted us to settle on the spot. The insistence that I call a Chinese friend to come in and translate for me.

By this point, my intransigent nature had kicked in. The one clear fact of the case, from my perspective, was that I was biking in a straight line and she veered into me. As far as I was concerned it was her fault, and I wasn’t going to allow her to profit off her mistake. Thoughts of deportation and Chinese prison were running through my mind, but I refused to relent.

We were eventually ordered to see an arbitrator in the Beiyuan administrative office of the Public Security Bureau. Both parties to the dispute were ushered into his or her own tiny office where we were separately questioned by the adjudicator. I made my case, insisting that the fact that she was knocked over while I remained upright proved that I was already past her when we collided. I think that bit of logic scored me some points and I could hear the officer arguing vehemently with the woman and her husband in the next room.

There I was, alone in an oppressively flourescent office at a white formica table, contemplating what I was going to do if I had to leave China. What was it about my stubborn nature that refused to sit by while I was being cheated? How had I turned into Captain Ahab, and all of China my Moby Dick? I knew it didn’t make sense, but I would spit in God’s eye if it meant I could avoid allowing this woman to take advantage of me.

I’m fairly certain I’m not alone. I’ve seen plenty of similar truculence from my fellow Americans in China. Foreigners spitting on cars, accusing cabbies of racism for not driving in a satisfactory manner, haggling excessively over ten yuan on a two hundred yuan dress. Anytime I stop to reflect on my behaviour here in China and compare it to how I would act in America, I get the chills. But it doesn’t mean I stop.

People like to blame China for this kind of regression in civilized behavior, but I know that’s not the case. It’s not China’s fault expats are a collection of insensitive boors. I’ve seen similar behaviour from other Westerners, but us Americans lead the way. There’s something wired into our psyche, a kind of excessive pride that bristles at the thought of being taken advantage of. We can’t stand to be cheated or be singled out for our foreignness – or not in any way that’s to our detriment. The smallest slight, and we’ll go sailing around the world for revenge.

I wasn’t forced to pay a ridiculous medical bill. The police officer knew what the woman was about, and her demands for 3,000 RMB fell on deaf ears. But this being China, the arbitrator insisted that we compromise. The woman had been taken to the hospital for x-rays after the collision, and he expected me to pay her medical fees, 180 RMB in total. When I objected, he said that I could insist on a formal hearing, but that would probably mean my visa and housing situation would be investigated, and so on. I understood exactly.

I agreed to pay the 180 RMB, but only after seeing the receipts for the x-rays. As long as my accuser wasn’t going to profit in any way, it was a small price to pay for getting out of there without any other collateral damage. I appreciated the arbitrator for his forthrightness. He didn’t allow me to be taken advantage of, though most of all, I knew he was looking out for himself. From his perspective, the easiest solution for him was for me to pay the hospital fee and get all of us out of there without any extra paperwork on his part.

Some people may still decry this woman’s behavior as typically Chinese. She collided with a foreigner and attempted to take advantage. But you’d be wrong on two counts. This kind of opportunism isn’t targeted exclusively at foreigners. I’ve seen many examples of cyclists and motorbikers getting hit by Chinese drivers and feigning injuries by laying down in the middle of the street in the hopes of a large cash payout. And in America, there’s an entire industry of lawyers who specialize in getting “victims” cash settlements from companies after some type of accident or mistake, regardless of whether there was any actual damage or not. We can’t pretend like this kind of situation only happens here.

Second, when we’ve conditioned ourselves to be the victims of injustice, we will find injustice everywhere. In one of my darkest moments, I was taking a taxi along a busy route I’d been down many times before. Thinking I knew all the shortcuts, I got extremely frustrated with my driver when he took a left where he should have gone right. Surely this was an example of a cabbie trying to take advantage of the laowai. I began to lay into him.

Except he wasn’t trying to cheat me. In fact, he’d taken us on a brilliant shortcut I didn't know. I apologised profusely when we arrived at my destination a few minutes early, and promised myself I would never jump to conclusions like that again.

I like to imagine what would have happened if Captain Ahab had taken a few moments to reflect on the absurdity of his behaviour, rather than sally forth hell-bent on revenge against the white whale. Maybe he would have realised he wasn’t the target of a cruel man-hating monster, but rather the unlucky victim of happenstance. Ahab, Starbuck, Queequeg and the rest of the crew (spoiler alert) would have made it home to their families alive.

These days, I try to do the same. Instead of looking for examples of people cheating me or taking advantage, I look at all the locals who go out of their way to help me, putting up with my ignorance with patience, or simply treating me like they do everyone else. It has made my time in China much more pleasurable. After all, it’s a lot easier being Ishmael than it is being Captain Ahab.

Decater Collins lives in Beijing. He is author of Ahab's Adventures In Wonderland, and also writes at his blog Chaos Factory