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.
Rural Idaho was the perfect place to grow up. Acres of fields surrounded our house, beckoning curious, chore-avoiding children to wander through them all summer long (and get in trouble when we decided to do a little science experiment and figure out how syphon tubes worked.) Canals with rickety bridges were the perfect place to hold races of leaves and sticks, dropping them in on one side and then scurrying across to see which came out the far end first. Those same canals had banks covered in milkweed, home to monarch butterfly chrysalises, and stalk after stalk of puffy pussy willows. But, with all these grand adventures just out our backdoor, one thing my Idaho upbringing did not equip me for was public transportation. Idaho, with its population of less than two million, does not do public transportation well at all. (To be perfectly honest, it hardly does it at all.)
During college, my roommate Cori, and I got quite adept at using the public bus system to schlep our weekly groceries home from Food4Less (yes, that is really the name of the store we shopped at!) and even made one freezing cold, wet December journey into Salt Lake City to spend the day at the aviary amongst angry owls and much too raptor-like emus. But, really, until my early 30s, public transportation was not really an option for daily travel.
Then, we moved to Washington DC. Within the first day of being there, our good friends John and Erin enlightening me about subway etiquette- more precisely escalator etiquette. Walk on the left, stand on the right. Pretty simple, but coming from an escalator-free town (does Caldwell even have one escalator in it?), it never crossed my mind. I was quickly grateful for the tip, as it didn’t take long to discover that our nation’s capital takes their escalator etiquette quite serious. For a year, the DC Metro was my primary source of transportation. I took it the get to training classes, to see the sites and to visit friends. While there was a lot of grumbling by DC natives about the constant track work and line shutdowns, I loved the fairly frequent trains that were clean and while often crowded, rarely over-filled.
Skip ahead a few months to our arrival in Chengdu. When we were here with Peace Corps, there was no metro system, but when we touched down a year ago, we were happily surprised to find a single line running north/south through the city center. Four months later, the second line in the city opened, connecting our apartment complex to a larger portion of the city. But, Metro riding in Chengdu bears little resemblance to that of the DC area.
This chasm is easy illustrated by the free newspaper being handed out all along both lines on Friday of last week. Since I am nearly illiterate in Chinese, I don’t have exact translations for the various guidelines, but the drawings provide a pretty clear picture. The paper provides ten rules for all subway passengers to follow:
1) No pooping on the train. (Thad and I both agree this would have been more appropriate as #2, but the drawing that includes a wavy stink line and a fly is a nice touch, so credit goes out to the artist for his/her detail work. I haven’t seen anyone take care of business on the subway here in Chengdu, but there were reports last winter of a child doing just that in Guangzhou, which may have been the impetus for this inclusion.)
2)No spitting on the train. (People here spit. A lot. It’s always good to prohibit spitting.)
3) Let others off the train before you get on. (This is my biggest Metro pet-peeve in Chengdu. NO ONE lets the offloading people through before rushing onto the just arrived cars. It creates a horrible traffic jam and is frustrating on a daily basis.)
4) No jumping the turnstiles. (Again, I have never seen this in Chengdu, but I suppose it is a good rule to have.)
5) No smoking or eating on the trains. (Do I see people smoking on the trains? No. Do I see people eating chicken feet out of plastic bags? Yes. But, to be fair, the DC Metro also has a rule about not eating on trains, but that didn’t stop people from snacking in their seats.)
6) No sleeping on the train. (I think this is more about hogging multiple seats by sprawling across them than it is about sleeping. I see people catching little catnaps on the train all the time, which, whatever!)
7) No panhandling. (This one confused me at first. I initially thought it was prohibiting the disabled from using the trains, but then I realized the little orange man had a money tray out. I should have instantly known the picture wasn’t showing a discrimination against the disabled, as the system itself does a pretty good job of keeping them out, since most stations are only accessible via staircase at the entrance. There is almost always an “up” escalator, but rarely a “down” or an elevator.)
8) Only use the emergency button for emergencies. (Again, good rule. Not sure that is has been an issue, yet…)
9) Let the elderly/pregnant/disabled (if they can actually make it to the train) have the seats. (This is probably my favorite of the drawings. I love the seated guy’s eyes. An old man is standing directly in front of him and he pretends to not see him. Nice!)
10) Use the escalators properly. (DC Metro would be proud of this one.)
After hundreds (thousands?) of these free newspapers were handed out last Friday, I would like to say I hold out hope that a few changes will come about on the Metro system (again, mainly #3), but I may be being a bit naïve. My thought is this: the Metro system is new to Chengdu, so new to nearly everyone who rides it. Just like I had to learn a bit about subway etiquette from the fabulous Townsends, maybe the folks here just need a bit of direction. With even more new lines set to open in the coming years, I’m choosing to look at teacup as half full and have faith that Chengdu’s public transportation will only get better with age!