SHENYANG, China — One thing people in the U.S. always talk about when returning from China is the traffic. But I think it’s the larger issue behind the traffic that those planning on visiting or working in China would do well to consider.
Us Westerners, especially us Americans, are used to having plenty of personal space. You know — “give me a home, where the buffalo roam” and “from sea to shining sea” — and all that. Heck, where I live in West Virginia, I can pee off my back porch in the middle of a sunny afternoon, if I want to, and no one would be around to see it.
So as a consequence, we don’t really grasp just how the large numbers of people in the cities here affect a culture.
Let’s take driving. Traffic here in China, at least in Beijing, scares the hell out of me, quite frankly. I had been warned by various Westerners about the taxis in Beijing, but honestly, the back of a taxi is probably the safest place to be in traffic in Beijing; the taxi drivers are the most experienced drivers, after all.
But to a Westerner’s eyes, at first glance traffic in Beijing — and the locals tell me it’s like that everywhere in China — appears to be absolute horrendous chaos. Cars cutting corners and cutting into oncoming traffic to pass or turn left, blindly butting into a lane rather than waiting to merge when there is a break in traffic, horns blaring all over the place, and as if that weren’t fun enough, thousands of bicyclists weaving in and out traffic, riding against traffic, blindly passing busses on the left, etc., — and not one of them wearing a helmet. Then throw in a slew of jay-walking pedestrians for good measure.
Chaos. Or is it? At first, I was tempted to believe the stereotype that many people on the West Coast of the U.S. have: that Asian people can’t drive. But that’s not the case — the contrary, in fact — as I’ve come to conclude after thinking about this all week. It started with this question: if thousands of people are riding bicycles everywhere in Beijing, and thousands more taking the subway or buses, then why is there still rush hour traffic and traffic jams to rival the worst that Berlin or L.A. has to offer, not to mention the smog?
The obvious answer: there are that many people crammed into a relatively small space, by Western, and particularly U.S. standards. Consider this: Beijing is almost the size of Belgium, and with a population of some 13 million (according to year 2000 figures), it has 3 million more people than Belgium.
And what’s more amazing is that there is rarely an accident. I spent most of this week running hither and yon in taxis (often clutching the door handle with white knuckles) and the occasional bus — I was in a taxi at least three times a day, sometimes more — and I witnessed one fender bender the entire time. What’s more, while you’ll hear horns all day and most of the night; no one ever seems to get road rage here; I have yet to see a cab driver so much as raise their voice, although they are quick with the horn.
As one of my new Chinese friends pointed out, if you don’t butt your way out into traffic in Beijing, when trying to get somewhere, you’ll literally wait hours. Same thing with getting in line for a subway car: if you don’t move quickly, you will be waiting for the next one. So the Chinese, nothing if not a pragmatic people, butt their way in. It may seem chaotic to us laowai (Caucasian foreigners), but traffic here is really an impressive, complex and delicate — albeit noisy — ballet.
The thing is, everyone here drives like that, and everyone expects everyone else to drive like that, and everyone has learned to deal with it, so it works just fine for the Chinese.
Maybe there are other factors involved that I haven’t ascertained; the population density in some of the larger U.S. cities rivals that of Beijing; in the case of New York City, it even surpasses it. And yet, while rush hour in any major American city will reveal a gaggle of buffoons behind the wheel, it never seems as chaotic as 8:55 a.m. on Monday morning in Beijing.
But it’s not that the Chinese can’t drive. Oh no, trust me on this one, folks. If the urban Chinese couldn’t drive and drive well, they all would have died in car accidents by now. And it’s not that they have a reckless disregard for life (although if I were to move here, I’d spread the gospel of the bicycle helmet).
I think that it’s just that this is the way life is in these crowded cities — that’s life in a country of 1.3 billion people. As I write this I’m looking out my hotel window in Shenyang, a city of seven million, and traffic, while seemingly not as crazy as that in Beijing, does nevertheless look like, and sound like, controlled chaos.
And it is stark contrast to what we experience in the States. If you picked 20 U.S. drivers at random and plucked them down in the middle of rush hour traffic in Beijing, I promise you, there would be 20 accidents in about 20 minutes.
And I think it’s the population density issue behind the fact that you often hear Westerners say the Chinese don’t respect privacy and personal space, or they have never heard of the concept of a queue — it’s not that at all; it’s just a byproduct of a large population.
So if you come here to visit or for business, keep it in mind when people jostle you at the train or subway station as they board the car, or when your taxi driver busts a move left of the yellow line into oncoming traffic, only to merge back into the correct lane at the last possible second, missing an oncoming car by inches on the left and a bicyclist by inches on the right.
Just smile and celebrate the exotic differences between our two cultures. And pray if it makes you feel better in the back of the cab.
Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a blog entry of mine that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. While its former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge), as far as I know, this blog content isn’t hosted anywhere else on the Internet, hence my reproduction here.