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This Ridiculous World Report: Crossing the Street in China

Crossing the street in China is like waking up in the middle of a dream: the line between reality and nonsense is so blurred that it seems like anything can happen. Except, when you step from the curb in China anything can happen (and most of the time, the curb is no safer).

At first glance the roadway is pure chaos, with buses, cars, bikes, motorcycles and pedestrians everywhere they shouldn’t be, going both ways on both sides and heading straight towards each other chicken-style down the middle.

As with everything else that seems like a beautiful bedlam, this disorder is, of course, an illusion. Not only does organization exist, but the system is simple enough for the hundreds of millions of urban Chinese navigators to understand without doing any reading or wasting any paper on informative pamphlets. It is so widely accepted that it seems a self-evident truth completely ingrained in the culture, perhaps a side-effect of overpopulation.

The system, kindly explained to us by a well-seasoned Lao Wai who has taken to braving the streets with a car of his own, is essentially the antithesis of our well-drilled defensive driving attitude. China’s offensive driving attitude requires drivers to pay as little attention to other drivers as possible. The main rule of the game is “no eye contact.” If you make eye contact, or react in any detectable manner, you are the loser and must allow the other vehicle to enter or shove past. Also, a pecking order exists in which bicycles and pedestrians generally yield to buses and cars, but this isn’t always strictly followed and depends on innumerable variables.

Because traffic signs are more suggestive than absolute, crossing the street becomes a careful art, like bowling or shuffle board. Placement is everything. First, you must make your way to the edge of the sidewalk, which is not always easy with bikes and people, and then, if there happens to be a motorcycle and bike lane, you must wait for an opening and make it across that. Traffic is often coming in both directions, requiring you to maintain a constant awareness. When crossing the main section, you must continue to look both ways, as well as behind and straight ahead for turning traffic, keeping in mind that Chinese drivers are creative with lane width and direction.

Though your eyes may sting from trying to be aware in the smog, and your neck may ache from twitching every which way, it is important that you try to look the opposite: calm, relaxed and unaware. This assures passing drivers that you have adopted their same attitude, you are playing the game, now they know to adjust their steering to go behind you if you are moving forward or around you if you are standing in the middle. Tragedies result from the loss of cool; darting forward like a scared bunny or freezing like a deer in the headlights is as terrifying for the approaching driver as it is for you and their reaction will be equally as thoughtless. So remember rule number one: no eye contact.

Often, when traffic is inconsistent, you will end up going lane by lane. As you wait for gaps, make sure to keep your arms tucked in – large trucks and buses rushing by on either side of you won’t take into account stray extremities. This method is made to feel safer by crossing with a group. It is not difficult to find groups of people crossing the road, as there tends to be a surplus of people everywhere, many crossing and recrossing in a seemingly aimless meander.

Finally, it is important to remember that being on the sidewalk does not make you safe. For the most part, cars will alert you of their presence if they are behind you on a sidewalk, but motorcyclists and bikers usually assume superiority and rip past you at top speeds, yelling obscenities if your grocery bag gets in their way.

To sum up, crossing the street in China is like waking up in the middle of a dream: the apparent disorder is actually a reminder of true and instinctual order. Recognize the ridiculousness and it will all make sense; embrace it as normal and you will be Chinese.

One Response to “This Ridiculous World Report: Crossing the Street in China”

  1. Aariq says:

    Traffic in Thailand and Vietnam doesn’t seem to follow any sort of rules either at first, but there is a rule: don’t hit anyone. It works pretty well.

    Crossing the street in Saigon is awesome. There are tons of motorbikes and not too many cars, so the best way to do it is to just walk really slowly at a constant pace through the traffic. Motorbikes will judge your speed and dodge appropriately. If you try to run across you’ll get killed.

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