May 3rd, 2012 | Published in Uncategorized
This past weekend was the labor day holiday here in China. We had no classes on Monday; I took a long weekend and left town to spend some time with some friends in my old small-town China hangout.
When I came back, I paid a visit to my usual Xiamen haunt–the cafe in Jimei–because a student wanted to lend me a book she had just finished, “I Want to Talk to the World” by Hanhan. More on that when I read it.
I ran into a foreign friend and we chatted for a while. When I asked my friend about the holiday, my friend answered thusly: “Well, I went on a boat ride; and it started out fun, but ended horribly.”
The story was this: My friend had gone on a trip with a large group that was a mix of foreign teachers from Xiamen and their Chinese friends. They had rented three boats and driven them out away from the coast, where they tied the boats together and simply hung out and enjoyed the late spring day.
A couple of foreign guys were swimming in the water. One of those guys invited his girlfriend, a student at the university where he taught, to jump in. She couldn’t swim, so sombody got a life preserver from the boat and held it in the water. The two guys waited in the water, with the life preserver. They expected that she would jump in the water, float up to the surface, and then she could hold onto the life preserver.
She jumped in. For some reason, she didn’t float back up. A Chinese woman in the boat started shouting, “—- is in the water; — is in the water!” It took a moment for my friend to realize that this meant somebody was drowning. The people in the boats slowly flew into a panic. Those who could swim began diving and searching for her. Nobody could find her. Somebody called the police. No police boats came. The passengers told the hired hands driving the boats to separate the boats to continue looking. They found nothing.
My friend thought perhaps the girl had hit the water, panicked, began flailing her arms, and driven herself further underwater. It’s certainly imaginable. Jumping into the ocean can be very intimidating, especially deep, opaque water like the kind they were in. I can swim, but being in deep ocean water can still make me feel a little panicky.
I wasn’t there that day so I can’t give any more detail than that. They didn’t find the girl’s body that day, but they looked as long as they could; they continued looking long after it was clear that if they did find her, she would be dead.
I felt sick for a day after I heard the story. I’m not sure why. I think part of the reason is because of the way it happened: People having fun, no flicker of an idea of death in any of their minds, and then, suddenly, death right in their midst.
It also bothered me because I am a foreign teacher in the same city. I know my students well; I know some of their parents; I know my colleagues fairly well, too. Although I only know one person who was there on that boat that day, I know the incident was deeply troubling for that person. It must have been devastating for everybody else. And there’s the young girl who died.
The story is also an example of failed cross-cultural communication of tragic proportions: There’s the foreign guys who may not have really known to what degree the girl “couldn’t swim”. (Most Chinese I’ve met say they “can’t swim”, but they often mean, on clarification, that they don’t know how to swim in a formal way, but they know how to stay afloat. This girl really, really couldn’t swim, it seems.) There’s the girl herself, who may not have felt comfortable expressing hesitance to jump in; or if she did, clearly was not emphatic enough about it. And then there’s the people on the boat–the woman screaming “— is in the water!” without anyone initially understanding–who failed to communicate efficiently enough to find the girl in time.
The whole thing is a nightmare. It should never have happened, and yet it did. It is shockingly sad and undoubtedly shockingly painful to everyone involved. And it says a few things: For one, foreigners in China are not always as safe as they believe themselves to be. We talk about the crazy traffic, the lax safety standards at construction sites, but we also take unnecessary risks sometimes. Two, you must know and respect other peoples’ boundaries and not push them to take risks they don’t want to take. I’m not saying anybody was convincing anybody in this instance–I don’t know if they were. But it’s clear that if these guys were trying to convince this girl to jump in, they’re going to regret it as long as they live.
This is the third time an acquaintance of mine has been present when somebody else drowned: In the second instance, a child drowned in a pool. In the third, a high school classmate of mine drowned in a river in our hometown when he got a cramp while swimming.
All these instances were very different, but all were completely sickening in their simplicity, in how quickly the deaths occurred, in the helpless regret those present surely felt. All occurred while people were ostensibly having fun nearby, which only adds to the horror.
Actually, Wikipedia puts it pretty succinctly:
Drowning itself is quick and silent, although it may be preceded by distress which is more visible. A person drowning is unable to shout or call for help, or seek attention, as they cannot obtain enough air. The instinctive drowning response is the final set of autonomic reactions in the 20 to 60 seconds before sinking underwater, and to the untrained eye can look similar to calm safe behavior. Lifeguards and other persons trained in rescue learn to recognize drowning people by watching for these instinctive movements.
So when you’re near open water, keep your eyes open and be safe. It might seem like a beautiful, balmy day; but there’s danger right by your side.