Thursday, October 14, 2010

How to Navigate Chinese Streets

After my 11 months of Chinese life, I have learnt many of the basic skills of moving from place to place in China and wish to share them with my treasured readers.
1. Don't look where you're going.
Consideration will drive you mad here. In New Zealand, people have a luxury in considering giving space to others, yielding the footpath to others. But increase the number of people and the calculations of consideration suddenly become complicated. Chinese pedestrians generally don't pay attention into whom they're about to be walking. They'll have an absorbing conversation with their friends as they stroll not looking forward at all. It is like that sure-fire way of winning that classic car game, Chicken: unscrew your steering wheel and throw it out the window. If you show that you are not changing course (and can't), whoever is the most aware will be the one to change course. If you are not going to change course you won't need to. Both people and traffic moves like a river here, with swirling eddies, white water, torrents and all. Of course people will bump into others which brings us to the next guideline.
2. Don't worry, be apathetic now!
Zen parable: You're in a boat in a lake relaxing when suddenly you notice a person cruising a boat towards you causing you to jump up and take evasive action. How would you react to them? Now imagine the same situation except an unmanned boat. How would you react? The point of the parable is that often we react to unintentional and incidental accidents differently. It is true in NZ. If someone were walking down the footpath with an umbrella (though under shelter) moving it side to side, spiking people with the prongs, others would curse them. But if a tree moved side to side and spiked them with its branches they'd be less upset and get over it quickly. In China though, regardless if it is the most inconsiderate pedestrian behaviour or reckless driving, most others will treat it as completely incidental, an unmanned boat, and most certainly nothing to get upset about.
I wish it were about Zen enlightenment. It is actually about a very low expectation of how other people will consider others. Road rage is left for actual accidents and not near misses. There isn't enough energy for the latter.
3. Cars give way to people; people give way to bicycles; and bicycles give way to cars
Nuff said. People don't mind potentially ending their lives walking in front of cars but be careful of the bicycles. They move like lightning and they know they have the right of way. Get out! I've almost been nailed by bicycles twice. I was walking straight. It was them who gave me the dirty look.
4. There's always room...
Subways and buses actually can fit a million people, if they are willing. Elevators are the same. Don't worry if the elevator just beeped overweight and the doors aren't shutting and haven't shut for a minute: the people waiting will wait and at some stage the elevator will descend.
5. ...and once you're on, you shall stop.
You were at the front of the queue of about fifty and proudly got onto the subway carriage with only two people sneaking in front of you. Stop in the doorway. This is important as if you go too deeply into the carriage, you'll have some pushing to do to get off. I know what you're going to say: What about the forty-eight people behind you? Well, if they want on they'll either push you further in or move around you. Either way, that is their choice.
6. Speed and urgency is all about scarcity.
Give a random set of Guangzhou citizens the simple task of going from A to B on a footpath, they'd take all the time in the world in far from straight lines.  Give the same set a subway station to get from A to B and the whole thing becomes about competition. Get onto the train! Don't queue. Push! Get a seat! Suddenly old ladies put their heads down. Parents send their children ahead ducking and weaving to get ahead of people so they can follow.  According to a friend, this is drilled in by parents and grandparents from a young age. In the most populous country if you yield to one you yield to all. And then you come last.


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