Saturday, March 12, 2011

Reflection #5 - Culture Shock

In Beijing, I was startled by the traffic: the number of bicyclists willing to ride right in front of oncoming vehicles, the acceptance of stop lights as suggestions rather than directives, the sheer number of cars. Then again, I was in the very back of our bus, unable to see 90% of the close calls we encountered. So when we got to Fuxin, and most of my traffic experiences started being from the front seat of a taxi, "startled" turned into "crossing my legs so I didn't pee my pants in fear."

I have perfected the art of going limp, my reasoning being that in most drunk-driving accidents, the person who is drunk generally comes away relatively unscathed, compared to the people who are aware of what is coming and are tensed up in fear. I can't close my eyes, though, because I'll almost certainly never be back in China, so I'll never see traffic jams comprised of taxis, buses, bicycles, pedestrians, and pedicabs (trust me, the pedicabs in Fuxin are nowhere near as classy - they're basically a bike with a couch on a trailer behind it and all wrapped in Saran Wrap).

When we cross the street here, we make sure both ways are clear, then we scram! We're not waiting around for a city bus to come bearing down on us, honking its horn and narrowly missing our pedestrian butts. Because the thing is, they won't hit us. No one ever hits pedestrians. A cab will swerve to miss someone, forcing everyone else on the road to create brand-new lanes of traffic. Everyone will honk at everyone else, and everyone will ignore everyone else's horns, their faces impassive as if they're thinking of what to make for dinner.

Three cars will make a left-hand turn onto the same street at the same time, and somehow no one hits anyone else, which is nothing short of a miracle, considering all the taxis are at least 15 years old, and none of them have had their brakes, shocks, alignment, or transmissions checked since they rolled off the line.

People here drive on the sidewalks, so I don't know if you can actually call them sidewalks. It's legal to park there, too. The cars have seatbelts, at least in the front seat, but no one uses them and in fact, Dr. Westhoff got reprimanded by a cab driver for trying to put hers on one day.

Our first day in Fuxin, Ms. Chen took us to the New Mart, and I rode in the car driven by her husband, a police officer. With Ms. Chen acting as translator, he asked us questions about traffic in America, and how many accidents there are. He was shocked when we told him there was usually a major accident every day in St. Louis; I was shocked that there wasn't one every hour in Fuxin. I told him that in America, we only use our horns when someone hasn't noticed a red light has changed, or if we're angry. Also, if someone honks their horn at us, we become automatically angry.

And then I dropped the stop-sign bomb on him. I explained stop signs to Ms. Chen, who asked, before even blowing her husband's mind with the new information, "What if there are no other cars there?"

"You still stop."

Pause. "How long?"

"Three seconds."

"If there are no cars there?"

"You still stop."

Silence. Then she relayed the information to her husband, who expressed similar disbelief.

"What happens if you do not stop?"

"You get a ticket."

Silence.

"You get in trouble with a police officer."

Much more rapid-fire Mandarin.

Having been in China for three weeks now, I can appreciate their disbelief - driving in China and driving in the US are two entirely different animals. Every day I get into a car, I'm sure it'll be my last day on earth. I've often uttered the half-joking prayer, "Dear Baby Jesus: Please do not let me die in a cab in China." But Fuxin has more people than the St. Louis Metropolitan Area, and apparently accidents are a rarity, so I should just chill out.

Yeah right. I think I'll just keep white-knuckling the door handle and trying to go limp.

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