Upon arriving, one of the many gifts I found waiting for me in my apartment was an electric bike. It belongs to my contact, Tina, who was nice enough to lend it to me. I’m informed that many well-off or even middle class families own at least one car and a bike.
On my second day of teaching, after class, one of the teachers taught me how to ride an electric bike in the school courtyard. Turns out, it’s incredibly easy. But they still caution me: “Slowly. Very slowly.” What’s a little more challenging, but very fun, to be sure, is navigating China traffic.
As the title of this post suggests, it’s a lot like Tetris; you basically just try to fit wherever there’s an open space. I’m still very new to China and I haven’t investigated any of the actual laws, but it’s safe to assume that traffic laws are much more flexible here than in the states. In Chinese culture, punctuality is valued highly but people have come to be very understanding when it comes to traffic. To illustrate my point, in the prepaid cell phone that I bought here, there is a message template that reads, “Sorry, I will be late due to traffic.” In fact, that just happens to be the first template listed.
Obviously, there is an emphasis on timeliness. The trade-off, however, is selfishness. Bicyclists are still marginalized as they are in America, but at least in Xingtai, they are given a lane as wide as a normal motorist lane. Still, cars will cut bicyclists off completely at intersections. There doesn’t appear to exist the idea of “right of way;” in its place is the idea that “I will go now and I think I can beat you.” Oftentimes, their assumption is wrong and it can lead to a very close shave. It’s not uncommon for a taxi or a supply truck or really any stopping vehicle to insert itself into the bike lane. And though China drives on the right side of the road, it’s also not uncommon for bicyclists or motorists to drive the opposite direction in the bike lane.
Plus, the sheer concentration of vehicles is staggering. At certain points in the day, there will be more bicyclists on the road than cars. Nevertheless, the streets are always busy and there will always be aggressive drivers. Thankfully, I have yet to witness a single traffic collision. Plenty of close calls, though, even some involving myself.
Because drivers are so aggressive and reckless here, the streets are alive with the sound of honking. However, the functionality of the horn is so much more varied here whereas in America, the horn is rarely used, and only out of life-or-death caution and extreme frustration. Here, a driver will use his horn more as an announcement, whether he’s entering the lane, coming up behind someone he believes is going too slow, passing someone, trying to beat the light, turning against someone else, whatever the case may be. But you can be sure that the horn is still used, and frequently, out of frustration or impatience. The silver lining is that because it’s so commonly used, it isn’t viewed as an attack and the recipient doesn’t have to take it personally.
Since the street signs are all Chinese characters and my character recognition is still shaky (or just simply “bu hao”), I’ve memorized my route by sight and by landmark. I think I’ve figured out Xingtai’s traffic light system and I’m starting to be able to time the different lights on my route as well as predict which hours of the day will be most hectic. Because there’s not just two rush hour periods as in America; there could be as many as four, who knows?
All in all, plenty of pros and cons to China’s traffic structure. I’m definitely not ready to get behind the wheel, but for now, I am more than content to stick with the electric bike. Anyway, it’s really quite ideal for city driving. Plus, no gas expenses. I literally plug it into the wall and in a couple hours, it’s fully charged and good for more than a day. I have a couple holidays coming up and I can’t wait to explore more of the city.
In my next post, I promise to finally launch into what it’s been like teaching these adorable, rambunctious, noisy, precious little kindergarteners. Zaijian!