BEIJING -- An American student has shot to Internet fame in China after buying a packet of French fries for a homeless woman in Nanjing.
Photos of her enjoying the food with the student -- a Southern California native named Jason Loose, who is now endearingly known as “American French Fry Brother” by many Chinese Internet users -- have been forwarded hundreds of thousands of times on Sina Weibo, China’s popular micro-blogging service.
The images have set off a new round of soul-searching in China since they were posted Saturday. Many Chinese citizens believe that their country’s blind pursuit of wealth has created a moral vacuum, causing feelings of indifference toward the suffering of strangers.
Loose, who has been studying at Nanjing University for nine months, was caught off-guard by his sudden popularity. “I just gave some food that isn’t really even healthy to an old woman and talked with her for a few minutes,” he said of the McDonald's fries when reached by phone today. “I don’t see much that’s newsworthy about that.”
“There wasn’t much money in her collection bowl, and it was really hot out,” recalled Loose, whose hometown is Thousand Oaks. “I walked past her and thought that maybe she could use some food and some company.”
The two talked about her poor health, her home in rural Anhui province, and the weather. She said she was thirsty, he recalls, so he poured her some spring water. He left after about 10 minutes.
“I asked what's her favorite food to eat?” he said. “Her answer was ‘not French fries.’ ”
Loose did not find out until the following day that an onlooker had photographed the encounter and posted the images online. He opened his own Weibo account soon afterward. Although he has written only 17 posts, he already has over 9,000 followers.
Comments on Weibo reflect admiration for Loose’s charity, and question why the Chinese aren’t often seen performing similar acts of kindness. “Truly wish this was a fellow countryman,” wrote one user. “Chinese people, let’s all learn from this,” wrote another.
Yet some users accused Loose of putting on a show, and others questioned his taste in food. One user responded with a tongue-in-cheek nationalistic swagger. “American Imperialism won’t even spare our old ladies,” he wrote.
In an online question-and-answer session with Loose organized by Sina Weibo, Internet users sought further details about the encounter. “Being a foreigner in China itself attracts attention, but you also sat with a beggar. At the time did a lot of people gather around you?” asked one user.
“This is something I didn’t notice,” replied Loose.
The foreign Good Samaritan has emerged as a hot topic on China’s social media websites since last fall, when CCTV footage of pedestrians ignoring a mortally injured 2-year-old girl in Guangdong province sparked widespread debate over the country’s moral conscience.
The girl, nicknamed Xiao Yue, was hit by two cars and ignored by 18 passersby before she was finally taken to the hospital by an elderly scrap collector. She later died of her injuries.
Internet users have taken to calling Good Samaritan foreigners “foreign Lei Feng,” inspired by a Mao-era propaganda symbol.
On Saturday, a Brazilian man in Dongguan in Guangdong province was severely beaten after attempting to stop a mugger from stealing a woman’s purse. About 20 onlookers -- and two nearby security guards -- failed to intervene as three men pummeled the Brazilian with sticks and belts, according to South China Television.
Last fall, a Uruguayan woman rescued a suicidal Chinese woman from drowning in Hangzhou’s West Lake, a well-known tourist attraction. "I was angry because the crowd was just curious and simply watching us -- it's not a fashion show," the Uruguayan woman told Shanghai Daily.
In another recent incident, an unidentified Caucasian man helped a woman after she was stabbed numerous times by her mentally ill son in Shanghai’s Pudong airport. He knelt by her side and held a scarf to her wounds until paramedics arrived.
While Loose is slightly baffled by the attention, he hopes to use his new-found fame to highlight the altruism of many Chinese people he knows. “I have had a great experience over here, and this has been a part of that experience,” he said.
-- Jonathan Kaiman