While living in another country, it is easy to point out the differences between what your “normal” is and what happens around you on a regular basis. I’ve often joked about the metro system and the spitting in Chengdu, but in reality, they aren’t things that bother me anymore. I’ve pretty much gotten used to them, and sad as it may sound, hardly notice the ubiquitous Chinese fifth-tone anymore. (Okay, there are times where it comes back and smacks me in the face like it is my first day in the Middle Kingdom. For example, I was visiting a local hospital the other day and had to walk past a man smoking in the corridor of the respiratory unit of the pediatric floor and then hop over the phlegm that an old woman just deposited on the hallway tiles. That might have been a bit too much!) But, the point is, the changes around you are obvious, but what are less obvious are the changes in yourself.
Point in case: I now think I ALWAYS have the right of way.
In America, I considered myself a decent driver. As a middle school teacher, I was well-aware of the lack of forethought that goes into anything from about the ages of twelve to sixteen (or longer!), so I was the car always going the “school zone” speed through the school areas, even when classes were not in session. I’ve seen a 7th grader, headphones on, phone in-hand, wander across the street without bothering to look up from the vital text about the new girl in homeroom class. Legal right-of-way or not, I knew to let that kid wander on so he could live to see just how intriguing the new girl was going to be. If I was at a four-way stop and it wasn’t clear who arrived first, I’d gladly wave on the other car. No biggie. (Although it did gall me a little when the driver upon which I mightily bestowed the right of way didn’t bother with even a minimal “thanks” wave.) And when I was the pedestrian, I stuck very closely to the “bigger always wins” rule, letting anything larger than myself automatically take the lead position, willing only to challenge that lost-in-his-own-world 7th grader who veered onto my side of the crosswalk.
Then, I came to China and a switch triggered in my brain. Now, I can pretty much always justify why I have the right of way.
When I am walking, it is easy. I’m a pedestrian, so the drivers should be paying attention and I should be yielded to. I am soft and squishy (I’d be less so if I’d use that treadmill that currently serves as not much more than a nightlight, although I’m not sure fit and toned would make a difference in a large blue truck vs. foreigner fight) and all should avoid hitting the tall, blonde girl. Since crosswalks are rarely found in Chengdu, I cross wherever is most convenient- sometimes that is an intersection, but as often as not it is the middle of the road. I don’t mind standing my ground on the yellow line that marks the halfway point of the road, cars zipping by both fore and aft, but I do expect those fore-cars to slow down or move over as I push my way, Frogger-style to the other side of the street.
But, when I am in a taxi, the rules are reversed. I don’t see any reason why my green VW Jetta should have to move over just because someone decides they are going to cross the road in an undesignated spot. It’s a road for heaven’s sake- cars get priority! And don’t even get me started on why my taxi should be able to zip up the bus lane or weave in front of the car with out-of-province plates. Who do those people think they are?
Each new country seems to create a bit of a new personality to go along with it. Stateside, the zebra-like crosswalks rule the pedestrian world and the yellow and white lines on the pavement create the boundaries of the vehicular world. I buy into that concept whole-heartedly. But, plop me down in the center of the Middle Kingdom and all yielding sense flies out the window. Roads are crossed with impunity and in traffic, my taxi is king.
When you take culture classes, they tell you that a new culture is not right or wrong, but rather just different. That may be true, but sometimes, the different rubs off. I may not be right or wrong, but in China, it may just be me that is different.