Sat 15 Jul 2006
*Disclaimer: Modok would never encourage anyone to break the law. Well… OK, in this post, I describe my attempts at assimilation into Chinese culture, including some behaviour which might not be viewed as “law-abiding.” I wouldn’t recommend anyone try this on their own, unless they have the guts to try something new and are willing to take total responsibility for their own actions. i.e. Don’t blame me if you get hit by a car.
One thing I’ve always loved about China is the fact that it is a “spirit of the law” society, rather than a “letter of the law” society. Having come from the latter, while I appreciate the attempt to apply the same standards to everyone and every situation, I don’t feel that the system in US even comes close. All it has done is spawn a huge oversupply of people willing to help you around those letters - the more money you have, the better letter-circumnavigation specialist you can employ. China is more a land of strong guidelines than strict rules. In general, many Chinese people have no qualms breaking laws they view as meddlesome. For instance, there are many traffic laws on the books, but this has not dampened the enthusiasm for jaywalking felt by a large portion of the population.
I’ve come to call jaywalking “traffic surfing” or “wading through traffic” depending on the speed of the oncoming vehicles. Let’s say you’re in the middle of two big intersections and there is a flyover across the street with an exit for a U-turn lane coming out right where you are likely to emerge. Now, we could walk all the way down to the traffic light and cross in the crosswalk. But, why would we want to do that? It’s completely out of our way and would add at least a whole minute to our journey. Maybe even more. After all, if you go to an intersection, you fall under the jurisdiction of the crossing guards, armed with flags and whistles. They are pretty good at keeping most people following the traffic lights, although altercations with people who refuse to heed them are not unusual. Some people just seem to get a kick out of stepping out to the edge of traffic and arguing with the guard, who seems to relish such opportunities to break out of the boredom. In the end, it’s not as though the crossing guard has any real authority. If they wanted to, they could attract the attention of the traffic cop sitting on his motorcycle somewhere nearby, but that would likely only bring a disapproving frown. Is it worth the possibility of a lengthy delay by having to wait for light? Of course not. So, we step out into traffic. I say we because there are always other people crossing. This is Beijing, after all, and there are plenty of people everywhere you go.
As this is a pretty major road, we have to cross five lanes of traffic each way. The first leg is easy. The traffic from this direction has just passed through the intersection and hasn’t built up speed. We just have to walk to the middle and let the cars pass on both sides of us and continue across. We walk under the flyover to the other side. Here it’s a bit trickier as the traffic is arriving from the last intersection and picked up significant speed, maybe an average of 35 kph. They are, of course, expecting us. After all, when the drivers of the cars are walking, this is what they would do. Only now they are in a car, which makes them king of the road, so if you are at the corner and the light is green for you to cross, you’d better stay out of the way because they won’t even consider slowing down for you. Unless you have achieved critical mass as a group and step bravely out into the path of traffic and force the cars to stop. So, as we have to evolve these skills to merely cross the crosswalk when it is our rightful turn, we are as prepared for the onrushing traffic, as they are for our presence.
The first lane is easy. We just have to wait for a gap to appear in the traffic, what will be the left-turn only lane up ahead. “We” in this case is a lady in office attire and me. Another gap appears in the following lane as we walk and we can also see another gap ahead, but the driver is traveling too fast and is not telegraphing any intention of changing lanes. We wait for another a few moments later, oblivious to the cars now passing behind us. While we wait, I observe the dividing point, as the traffic goes to either side of us - the traffic spreads apart somewhat to make room for us. It would be foolhardy not to be on the lookout for the possibility that the driver might not be paying perfect attention. Another gap appears and we make it safely across.
I have analyzed this activity quite a bit, ever since my first visit to Shanghai in 1994 when I witnessed and later experienced the ultimate in traffic wading, as constant streams of pedestrian traffic merged with the slow moving car traffic. I actually weighed in on the side of order at that time. Mind you, I do appreciate order - just not to the point where it becomes oppressive. This same chaotic behaviour that allows them (us) to jaywalk so freely also manifests as an inability or unwillingness to wait in lines. The approach on the part of the governing authorities for both issues has been the same. Herding. Fences are going up everywhere, on most major roads and even in subway stations, to force everyone into prescribed paths. With the recent introduction of IC cards for subway and busses, they have installed fences at all the bus stops to force everyone to board in an orderly fashion, instead of the traditional all jostling to be the first one on and therefore taking twice as long to board.
Of course, many will resist all attempts to get them to behave in an orderly fashion, if it means they have to wait instead of merely getting what they want immediately. At least with jaywalking, there is risk involved. There are plenty of accidents, though not nearly as many as one would expect. My analysis? I put it down to chi flow. Chinese people are much more aware of currents than many other cultures. They can usually guess what the other person is going to do. But not always. If there is an accident, both will get out of their cars and start yelling at each other. The one who bows down is at fault. Or so it seems to this observer. It always boils down to a confrontation of chi. Since this realization, I’ve become emboldened at traffic lights. After the fourth Mercedes or Audi has turned right in front of the crowd, I cast a stern look at the driver of the fifth and step out in front of him, forcing him to stop. This works because the crowd behind me has sensed my move and was ready for it. They have all followed right behind me. If it hadn’t been me, it would have been someone else. We have achieved critical mass. It is our turn.
[tags] beijing, traffic, jaywalking, qi gong, wading, china [/tags]