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.
June 30, 2008
I suppose travelling always results in these sorts of coincidences, the kind that you don’t forsee and can never expect because you only get them when you aren’t looking for them. Today was just such a day in Minneapolis. After flying out of Miami International from a wonderful wedding (which should get its own blog post when the time is right) I landed in Minneapolis/St. Paul International airport around 5pm. I quickly found a locker to stow my duffle bag and inquired about the public transportation. The light rail runs directly from the airport to downtown Minneapolis, but I decided to get out at the metrodome. Apparently while I was admiring the stadium I failed to realize that my cell phone was staying on the metro without me. While this was of course upsetting and incredibly careless, I wasn’t about to let it ruin my freedom. It was out of batteries with my charger safely stowed in the airport locker, and it wouldn’t work in China for the next two months. I hope it’s new owner is good to it and the young 2gb miniSD card in it’s womb.
With no one to call in Minneapolis anyway I held my chin up and started walking in the downtown direction, where there were large shiny and reflective buildings. I walked past the coolest parking garage I’ve ever seen with about 10 kids skating smooth banks that could be mistaken for ramps. I fought the urge to hurt myself and decided to find a coffeeshop with free wifi. After walking through the amazing courtyards of government plaza I wandered down Nicollet Ave. stopping briefly for a free sample of bagelful and the tail end of some kind of latin music festival. Nearby was a Caribou Coffee, but at 7:15 I only had 45 minutes before they closed. So I found out from a barista that there was a 24/7 coffee shop called Hard Times Cafe and got directions. It was a short “light rail” ride and a few blocks walking to find the bright neon green building with a full vegetarian kitchen. Of course I had to get a grilled cheese and a coffee. What I admit next is shameful, and much to the chagrin of myself and everyone else that cares about me, but I resumed my battle with nicotine. The pull from travelling and some discrepencies while celebrating in Miami was just too strong for my travel and freedom induced mindstate to defend against. Of course this can’t continue but this infernal chemical has once again sunk its fangs into my mind.
I would have liked to have eaten at one of the restaurants in the African American district around the corner, as in the East-Africa American Diner but unfortunately Sunday evening isn’t the right time for that. I did get to see some elegantly and brightly dressed people walking the street.
A casual chat with the barrista at about midnight sent me around the corner to a bar called Palmer’s. The beer was cheap, the music was good and the environment was incredibly chill. This former “house of ill-repute” is 102 years old, with cash registers that were modern in the 40’s. Apparently one of the working girls still haunts the place, nightly knocking over a glass or chair when no one is around. The patronage could be called alternative, but that seems like such a cop-out. There were white girls with tattoos, dreads and lip-rings and black guys in button ups and multi-colored kicks, its the kind of place where you end up falling short when trying to sum it up. I drank a couple beers with a group of real chill musicians/travelers who were all out of school one way or another. On the piano was Cornbread Joe, apparently an old school jazz pianist from Chicago whos age did not stop his fingers from giving the keys a multi-racial ass-whooping.
With my intent to stay up all night I decided to cut myself off at 2 beers and head back to the coffeeshop, where I find myself now writing this blog post and waiting on some french toast. As clean as downtown is, I find myself much more at home among free wifi and cheap coffee. Cheers to getting a head start on jet lag in a happenin’ way!