traffic

September 12, 2008

Most sidewalks in China are composed of tiles or cobblestones, and in the major cities there is usually a path with ridges for the convenience of the blind. In all the Chinese cities I’ve walked through, with all the millions of people, I have never seen a blind person walking the street. Even if I were to see a blind person, I could not imagine them utilizing the pathway because they would most certainly be accompanied by a friend or relative. When crossing the street with a Chinese friend I have become accustomed to the physical reassurance they offer by pulling my arm or putting their arm out to stop me from walking. I became used to the sight of Chinese girls walking hand in hand or arm in arm, supporting each other as if they had just stumbled out of a burning building. These observations may seem strange to the Western pedestrian, but they make all too much sense on Chinese roads.

I no longer gripped the “oh shit handles” in the taxi when we made a U-turn across three lanes of traffic at a busy green light. There would be honking, yielding, coming to a stop with our taxi perpendicular to oncoming traffic as we waited for the last lane of traffic to present an opening. The first time my taxi pulled in front of a bus from a stop in second gear it is easy to imagine the panic I felt, a different but just as anxious feeling came up the first time my taxi cut off a police car with its sirens on. It turns out that Chinese police turn on their lights to signify that they are on duty, but the rules of the road are clearly different. Traffic lights seem to be guidelines, the paint that separate lanes are mere decoration and horns see far more use than turn signals. Yet I always got from point A to point B.

Why is it that I got safely to where I was going? How could a system without rules accomplish exactly the results we depend on our laws to provide? There is a subtle and pervasive undercurrent in China that shapes the behavior of its citizens. This force can be described as a tacit mutual understanding between every individual. This understanding must be continuously maintained, constantly updated by being aware of ones surroundings. My friend pulling my arm was a sign that she was paying attention to my welfare, and stopping me with his arm was another friends reaction to the approaching cars. A taxi turning across a full street relies on the understanding held by the oncoming drivers, and when he stops with one lane left, he is considering the Audi speeding down the last lane who can’t slow down enough to accommodate him. It is not the rules of traffic that guide the decisions each driver makes, it is the surrounding environment that dictate the next move.

And traffic is just the metaphor.

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