A Man in Need of Help – An Inescapable Memory from China

Beijing, China

His arms and legs were bleeding profusely through his frail, aged skin. This man in his seventies had fallen off his bicycle and was now lying on the side of the road.

Ten meters away, I stared at the pool of blood starting to collect near his body. I hadn’t seen him fall off of his bicycle, but I had heard it. It was a screech of the tires followed by a loud thump of the sound of his body hitting the ground. I looked back and saw that he hadn’t been hit by a car, but appeared to just lose control. Perhaps it was the blazing heat of the summer afternoon in Beijing that made him disoriented.

I jumped off my bicycle and ran to the old man. He was conscious, but couldn’t move. And he was bleeding intensely.

“Are you ok?” I asked him in my most basic Mandarin.

“Eh,” he softly grunted back. He needed help. I wrapped my white button down shirt around his bleeding arm, which left me with a white tank top undershirt. I needed help to get this man to the hospital.

I stood up and looked around. Bicycles whizzed by us with a quick glance at the situation, but not stopping to help. I stood in the middle of the bicycle lane and tried to get people to stop. One person did, then the next, then another, and soon there was a circle of onlookers around this man who was still immobile and bleeding.

“What happened?” a mid-aged man asked me.

“He fell,” I pronounced as I tried to muster up the right intonation of the word “dao“.

He didn’t respond and kept looking at the old man on the ground. I looked around at the growing group of people on the sidewalk and bicycles stopped on the side of the road. In a city where everyone owns a bicycle and a mobile phone, I didn’t see a single person with their phone out making a call for an ambulance.

I had my phone, but didn’t even know the number to dial for emergencies in China. Even if I did know the number, my severely limited Chinese wouldn’t be able to describe the situation, where we were located, and the need for immediate help.

I scanned the growing crowd and noticed a younger man around my age and asked him, “Da dianhua gei jingcha.” I said “call the police,” since I didn’t know what the 911 emergency number was in China. He took out his phone and dialed 110 to call in the accident.

Meanwhile, this old man was still bleeding and inaudible. My white shirt was now a deep crimson red, futile in its attempt to stop the flow of the man’s blood onto the hot pavement. It would be at least a few minutes until the police or an ambulance came. I needed to help stop his bleeding.

This whole scene manifested itself right outside my bedroom window. I had been on my way back to my apartment from a morning of mentally exhausting Mandarin classes. I sprinted to my second-floor apartment and grabbed every towel I could find.

Two minutes later, I returned to an unchanged scene: An old man on the ground with blood everywhere, at least fifty people surrounding the man, and no one doing anything to help him.

His eyes weren’t open, but he was still conscious. I wrapped the man in a couple of towels and tried to soak up the blood around him. Crouching down beside him, I could see the brown spots of aging on his face and arms.

Looking around at the crowd, I was deeply saddened and frustrated. All these Chinese people were just spectators and took no action to help this clearly helpless elderly man.

The police officer on a motor bike finally showed up, after about ten minutes since the call from the mobile phone of the young man. He got off of his bike, looked at the old man, then looked at me near his side.

Zenme le?” he asked. “What happened?”

Dao le,” I tried to pronounce again to say he had fallen.

The police officer took out his mobile phone and made a call, which I presumed was for the ambulance. With the arrival of the officer, I felt a small burden lifted off my shoulders. Someone else could finally take responsibility for this old man.

A few minutes later a small emergency van came and I felt a sudden relief that the old man was going to make it. He was alone though. I wanted to go with him to the hospital to make sure he would be helped. The officer asked me if I knew him and I replied “No.” But I still wanted to go with him in the van.

A mid-aged woman in the crowd tugged at my arm gently, as I was about to get on the van with the old man. She discreetly waved her finger at me to not get on.

Weishenme?” I asked her “Why?”

Gen ni mei guanxi,” she advised. “It has nothing to do with you,” I translated in my head. It still didn’t make sense, but I stepped back and stood there frozen.

Once the ambulance sped off, so did the crowd, with nothing more than a mangled bicycle and a pool of bloody towels left behind. I pushed the bicycle to the gate of my apartment complex and put the towels and my shirt in a large trash can.

I wondered if the old man would ever come back for his bicycle. He never did.

Cliff Hsia is a writer, husband, and father, who is determined to live a better than normal life by traveling the world, slowly and purposefully, with his wife and two young daughters. His writing has been featured on MSN, TODAY, The Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, and other publications. He writes about travel, parenting, and lifestyle design.

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