Monday, March 31, 2008

Walk This Way

Pedestrians do not run across streets in Shanghai. Cars and scooters do not stop for pedestrians in Shanghai. And yet, I saw no one hit and no car swerve. I heard no brakes squeal.

A photograph might fool you into believing the rules there are the same as in California. Red, yellow, and green lights for cars appear as they do here. Red and green silhouettes of pedestrians shine on crosswalks as they do here. But switch to video and you quickly note that cars and scooters ignore pedestrian lights and pedestrians. Right turns are at full speed even though a green silhouette encourages pedestrians to cross straight with the prevailing traffic.

Not understanding the rules that kept locals alive, I walked close behind them, moving when they moved and stopping when they stopped. All that worried me were my compatriots, four of whom followed in tight dyads of conversation. I would not have talked to anyone while crossing six lanes of Shanghai. My head swiveled left and right like a radar antenna, ever wary of cars that might slip in behind our local escort.

Years of experience lets these conscious acts sink slowly away. We cross streets and navigate our home territory with little more thought than breathing or blinking. Foreign travel is a gift that reawakens us to the automatic in our lives…and reminds me of the techniques underlying our everyday acts.

I experienced all this during 9 days in China. The rules are different there. Our buses never hit anyone, were never hit, and rarely had to use their brakes. They threaded through the smallest spaces. They backed into and out of spots big enough for my Honda Civic. They never showed anger, exasperation, or—as far as I could tell—fatigue. They were masters at their craft.

The order within the chaos was hardly clear. Drivers in the China we saw broke all manner of western rules by cutting people off, stopping in odd places, and even backing up on a highway. The absence of accidents suggested that Chinese drivers were not getting by on luck alone. I’ve seen plenty of accidents in California, where we follow our rules…mostly. The absence of accidents revealed the invisible technology of rules behind the visible of cars, buses, lights, and crosswalks.

Bicycles had been more common than cars until recently. Outside of Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou, where I visited, they may still be. I read that the car’s recent popularity has not changed behavior: people drive as if cycling, weaving through pedestrians and squeezing into tight spots. Maybe that helps to explain what we saw. At low speed, bicyclists can jostle without damage and learn to avoid even jostling by judging who is half a second closer to a coveted opening in traffic. Chaos means we do not understand the order.

Below is video I took from our tour bus in Beijing. Narration is courtesy of our guide Alice.

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