Saturday, April 10, 2010

How China Drove Me Crazy

Some of my most vivid memories of my years living and traveling in Asia are of the driving.   My first road remembrances originated in my year in Taiwan fresh out of college:

  • Flying around a huge traffic circle in the back of a taxi in the middle of Taipei my first day there, 60 miles an hour, huge suitcases leaning on me because there was no room in the subcompact’s trunk, no sign of any seatbelts, when the door flew open and I found myself hanging on for dear life
  • Multiple accidents across the city each night when drivers—who, for some reason I never understood , turned off their headlights every time they sat at a stoplight—would smash into each other when they forgot to put the lights back on
  • The cab crunch—where there are two lanes of traffic and you’re driving between the vehicles in each lane (trucks, for maximum effect) and you close your eyes and have no idea how you come out the other side in one piece.   The first time this happened to my friend Kelly and I we were clinging to each other for dear life, hands held in a death grip, and I drew blood
  • The classic, family of five on a motorcycle  (motorcycles were the main form of transportation in the city)
  • Drivers’ utter disregard for every safety device offered by the car  (turn signals,  for instance) or the road (lanes, for instance)
  • Hugging tight to a handsome young man on the back of his scooter, speeding through a steamy Taipei night.  (But that is a story for another day…)
Reading Peter Hessler’s new book Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory brought back these memories as well as many from later living in mainland China, in all too familiar driving conditions despite nearly two decades having passed. 

I knew I was in for a ride when I was roaring with laughter from the first chapter.  Hessler shares questions from China’s written driver’s exam that speak volumes about the society.  For example, coming to a flooded road, should you (a) examine the situation and proceed with caution, (b) accelerate, or (c) “find a pedestrian and make him cross ahead of you?”  While this is funny in any case, it’s particularly funny when you’ve travelled and lived in China enough to know that answer (b) is the most drivers would pick, with (c) running a close second.  China may be a towering economic power but to say it has its quirky moments is an understatement.

Driving anecdotes aside, it’s still the China I remember – on Hessler’s first trip out of Beijing he makes it only as far as Inner Mongolia before awakening one morning to be told police are in the lobby, and they kick him out of town.  Driving on, he reaches another town six hours away, where the police have already been alerted, and is kicked out of there.  Southwest Airlines will never do a commercial in China using its “Feel Free to Move About the Country” slogan, because, well, you’re not. 
Question 352 on the exam seeks the correct response to a motorist asking you for directions and the choices are (a) “not tell him,” (b) “reply patiently and accurately,” and (c) “tell him the wrong way.”  Again, you may not know, but (c) is the ringer.  At least when I first traveled there in 1980, asking directions always resulted in being sent on a wild goose chase (or in one unfortunate case, in having the person I asked hustled away abruptly and ominously by police who appeared out of nowhere).  It was, I concluded, a combination of pressures, 1) that giving information—even what we in a free society would consider innocuous information like directions—to a foreigner wandering unescorted was very risky business that could have grave consequences in this repressive and xenophobic regime, and 2) that if you didn’t know the answer you would lose face, so very important a cultural concept in China, so it was preferable to bluff and give wrong directions rather than fess up that you didn’t know and lose face.

Fast forward 17 years to my living in Tianjin as a grownup, with a young child, considerably less cavalier when it came to driving dangers.  I had to ride periodically to a doctor’s office in Beijing (which I always referred to as three hours and 20 years away from the city we lived in) -- 3 hours of pure torture, cars driven by guys who’d had their licenses for two minutes, going 90 mph on tires whose expat manufacturers would tell you over drinks were only safe for 50 mph, sharing the road with donkey carts piled impossibly 30 feet high with hay, going 0.5 mph.  And did I mention the road between Tianjin and Beijing was notorious for dense fog and multivehicle pileups?

Still, it was all a fond if ludicrous trip down memory lane to read Hessler’s stories of China driving in the new millennium, complete parallels to Taiwan driving in the 1980s.  Do not miss his hysterical riffs on the meaning of all different kinds of honking signaling both routine and insane road maneuvers.  He concludes, “[T]here’s a short basic honk that simply says: My hands are still on the wheel, and this horn continues to serve as an extension of my nervous system.”

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