The little kid, not one of my students, tries to corroborate the bullies’ story, but he is too shaken up to effectively nod. He does the body language equivalent of stammering for part of a second, and quietly tears well up in his eyes. A few drops had already escaped before I got there. He looks at me through these spheres of tears and cheap, ridiculous (yet trendy, very popular), fake blue contact lenses.
I dislike them because they don’t look remotely real. The dots and shapes of different blue in them are not eye-like at all, and they never seem to fit the kids wearing them right; the pupil window is often too big or the iris ring too small and some of their natural color shows through as circles of teak or coffee brown. I also don’t like the fake blue contacts because wearing them seems to say: “I wish I had blue eyes.” What’s wrong with your perfectly good brown eyes? Are you wishing you were Western? Sometimes in class, kids will just drop out of lesson-related conversation and stare at my eyes and my blonde, ginger, see-through eyelashes. “Teacher, you look so different,” they say. Not in a mean way, just curious. One kid called my eyebrows “golden” and I have to admit, I did think that was pretty cool.
Tears turn into flooded rivers as he breaks eye contact with me. The two older, bigger, kids that had been roughing him up try to explain: “No, Teacher: joke, play.”
No Kids, No joke. Not play. But I have to act here as if it could’ve been. These kids will cross paths again and I don’t want the little one picked on worse because of anything I do. And even though I’m angry, I have developed a quick and easy rule with no shades of gray or ‘unless ifs’ written into it: a grown man should never strike a kid. Ever.
I’ll back up a bit. I’m walking away from the school I worked at into the ghetto that I lived in during my time in Taiwan. “Ghetto? Really, Jeremiah, are you by any chance exaggerating as you sometimes do?” Thanks for asking, reader. I don’t think I am. It was not the poorest or most dangerous ghetto in the world, and honestly, a few buildings that made up the outside ring were actually quite nice. But this was a neighborhood set off from the rest of the city; people were hemmed in by the school campus on one side and a highway on another side. Factories with gates made a third wall, and lastly a row of connected buildings with one entrance guarded by private security made another impassible barrier for a number of blocks. Beyond that side there was a rice paddy, a fetid canal, (It was truly filthy. I’d see dead street dogs rotting in there and sometimes industrial waste would turn the water Ty-D-Bol blue, the color of a Blue-Hawaiian cocktail.), and a concrete factory. On the inside of this cut-off area were high rises for poor people and laborers, mostly non-Taiwanese. (Perhaps tall buildings would be a better choice of words. Between 12 and 16 stories.) I suspect that many of the buildings were mostly empty because when the sun went down, a lit up apartment window was a rare thing to see. That could’ve been due to people being frugal with electricity usage though.
The centerpiece in this neighborhood was a Christian outreach mission/church. Let me interject here and state that I do believe we should help our fellow man, and I believe that it’s a good thing that organizations exist that help out those who require help: public, private, faith-based, and non.
I love cities though, and I have observed in more than a few of them that when you take everybody from an area who requires help and put services in one space, it changes that neighborhood. I believe healthy neighborhoods have a mix of all different sorts of folks, income levels, housing types, and public spaces. When one public space or a few contiguous blocks become THE place where people who need help congregate all the time, people who are not social workers or on the receiving end said help tend to leave. Things get dirty, littered, and sometimes alcoholics, the mentally ill, and the homeless act out. I don’t want to sound too judgmental here; to be fair, what kind of behavior do you expect from a person in crisis? Perfect manners and impeccable grooming? No. Many of these people don’t have enough access to bathroom facilities and some of them—reasons vary and abound—need help with what health-care people call “activities of daily living.”
The Christian mission used the basement all the time, but it seems like the aboveground levels stayed empty except for church services on Sundays. At this point we’re on the first floor, street level.
The people running this mission don’t have the resources to police the city block and small plaza in front of their place. I DO think they need to close and lock spaces they aren’t using though, and here’s why:
I’m walking away from the school I where I was working, towards the building I was staying in, and in the open disused space at street level in the Christian mission building, I see two boys (maybe between 12 and 14 years of age) holding down a younger, smaller, boy on a collapsible ping-pong table. They’re slapping him and laughing as he tries to get away. They have his shoulders pinned, so his pelvis is bouncing off the table, his back arching up; he’s trying use all of his not-pinned body to get away. I wonder if any locals on the street are seeing this. One of the kids grabs the small boy and holds his head and neck onto the table. The other goes for the kid’s front pants pockets. Or pants. (Are they robbing him or molesting him?) This is what is happening as I walk across the street and into the open foyer. I walk instead of run because I don’t want them to know I’m going to intervene until I’m close enough to do so. The bullies are so enjoying what they’re doing (or they’re so accustomed to nobody getting involved) that they don’t notice me until I’ve grabbed one of them by the collar and the other one I’ve backed into a corner with my elbow close to his chin and my forearm close to his neck.
“What are you boys doing?” I ask. It is the lowest, calmest, voice I have ever heard come out of me.
None of the three has any English and I speak no Chinese whatsoever. And yet, I know exactly what they’re saying.
“Oh, Teacher [Even complete strangers called me Teacher. In any small town people are bound to talk about the new guy that doesn’t look like everybody else.] this isn’t what it looks like, no no no… Us and “Joey” here were just playin’ around. Isn’t that right Joey?” [He pats “Joey’s” back.] I stare at the talking one, not letting go of him, waiting for more. “We’re friends, isn’t that right Joey?” And the other bully knows the English word for friend. “Yah! We friend Teacher! [sic] No bad!” Wow. For the first time since arriving in Taiwan, people are speaking Chinese to me and there is no question in my mind about what’s happening.
I was bullied a bit when I was a kid, so it’s kind of a miracle that I didn’t lose my cool and slap those Chinese lies and that one English word right out of their little junior-thug mouths.
“Joey” is scared and he can’t tell me what’s really happened not only because he speaks no English, but also because he would face a world of shit later if he told me the bullies’ names and that, no, they were not in fact, friends.
When I look at him, I can see that he is embarrassed. It is embarrassing to be picked on. I know.
I had a couple of older friends that I looked up to in different times and different places. When it would come to a question of intervening, when it came to a ‘what do I do’ situation, they would always get involved without hesitation. E. F. was from very near my home area in New Hampshire and R. M. was from a South Pacific island. Both of these men were muscle-y, in good shape, with relatively think limbs. Both of them were fighters. Both of them had their ‘justice switch’ permanently in the ‘on’ position. Mouth off to a lady? Pick on somebody smaller than you? No question about it, you were gonna get a beating. Both of them had at different periods of time, fairly or not, been incarcerated. For fighting.
I used to wish I was like E. or R., able to say: “that ain’t right” and then step into the situation full of confidence and correct it. Through force.
There were times when I was young and small and I saw (or was the object of) some pretty bad things. I did not intervene, and those memories shame me to this day. No joke. I don’t think I’ll be writing about those anytime soon.
When I heard screaming coming from an adult male echo up to my 14th floor apartment on my first night in that part of Taiwan, I did not intervene and I hated myself for it. I did get to intervene with the kid mentioned above though, and I’m glad I didn’t lose my temper. I hope that karma balances those two things out a little.
It is not always easy to know when to intervene. If you are a teacher dealing with kids, the answer is clear: “you cannot just keep walking.” When it comes to adult situations though, it is not always so cut and dry. My two ‘big brothers,’ my fist-fighting bruiser friends (and other friends just like them who are dear to me as well), wound up going to jail because they would always step in. And one of them had all his teeth broken out.
I don’t feel guilty at all about having the cops step in instead of myself with our former down-stairs neighbors back in Portland, Maine even though waiting for the police could’ve had disastrous effects. It is not my job to be justice incarnate. But it is my job to act justly, and for ‘not- really-a-bruiser-even-though-I-kinda-wish-I-was’ me, acting justly usually involves practicing restraint.