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September 08, 2005

Driving in China

Time for a brief educational aside while Gwen naps. Driving in China is a totally different kettle of fish than back home. Here's a picture of rush hour in Guangzhou. It's tough to make out from the picture, but "lane" is a fluid concept defined less by namby-pamby road markings and more by harsh reality. It's not uncommon to see cars in stop and go traffic moving perpendicular to the traffic flow, so driving feels a lot like playing gridlock. Weaving through and between lanes at speed shows engagement with the driving process and hence respect for one's fellow drivers, and is strongly encouraged. Creation of lanes from the asphalt aether is worth double points. Turn signals and gentle preliminary motions imply that one's fellow drivers are unable to discern intent, and are considered crass and insulting. Merging is an opportunity to collaborate closely with others. The only rule is: don't hit anything. So like skilled judo practitioners, drivers try to establish situations in which an opponent's momentum works against him or her, forcing rapid braking to avoid contravening the one rule. Nudging a nose in front of somebody is tantamount to victory, and inches on either side are considered a vast welcoming canyon.

Into this mix, we next introduce pedestrians. We drove back through Guangzhou yesterday along an eight-lane expressway with pedestrians standing between the lanes. Expert pedestrians carry themselves with icy sang-froid, seemingly unaware of cars, trucks, and buses careening by inches away from them. Like frogger players of yore, they plan paths through complex evolving traffic flows, and drivers gently modify trajectories to leave appropriate body-sized spaces between vehicles at appropriate times. It's like watching ballet.

On the other hand, many aspects of driving are much less crazy than back home. Most notably: no anger. We saw our van driver enter a three-minute duel with a truck full of livestock about merging rights, each valiantly fending off attacks then pressing forward like Robin Hood on a log bridge, honking and jerking into tiny spaces. But nobody showed any anger, and when one party won, both just went about their business without any emotional display at all. No road rage. Also, while merging is vigorous, acceleration is always gentle, as if there's no reason culturally to jackrabbit start from each stoplight. All told, I can understand why a person from either culture would quickly get a bad rep in the other culture.

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