Culture Shock! Welcome to the new series that basically named itself! We’ve just landed in a new continent that is about to challenge us in completely new ways. Some will undoubtedly be intriguing and funny little things we’ll have to adjust to. Others will surely be frustrating or beyond comprehension. Finally, there will be cringe-worthy moments certain to have us questioning why we ever left the comforts of home in the first place.
Each article in the series is intended to be an opportunity to learn, grow and share. It is our collection of observations and information from the different cultures we visit from our subjective anthropological perspective. We never intend to shame or shed negativity on anyone else’s way of life. Wherever we can, we will do our best to understand and explain how to respect and behave in a given place. Though sometimes, we may only be able to share on what NOT to do, as we figure out life as a local through our embarrassing mistakes and faux paus moments.
Culture Shock and the Chinese Driver
There was only a single moment where the words got caught in my throat.
“Let me out! Right effing now!”
April and I are on our way to the Longji rice terraces of northern Guanxi province in China. It’s the rainy season, hot and humid since arrival, but so far we’ve been spared any downpours on our first week in this country. That hasn’t been the case in the mountains. The potholed, winding road, barely a lane and a half wide curls between rocky cliffs and a raging river below. The pretty waterfalls all us passengers admired as our minivan first started climbing away from the highway have now turned into raging drenchers flying out of the vertical walls above us and straight onto the road. Ahead of us, a landslide caused a massive portion of the road to collapse into the river. From my back row point of view, it is clear that the remaining asphalt has no solid mountain beneath it. It is only a matter of time before it gives way completely, and we are about to drive over it.
Our driver is undeterred. His work day has already been extended on account of rock slides this morning. He arrived at our location in Guilin city 2 and a half hours late and he still has a 3 hour journey to our destination in Dazhai village. There is no stopping him now. We have already driven the wrong way into traffic, experienced a hundred near misses as he attempted to overtake everything from semi-trucks, scooters and cows in his lane while on blind corners. The rule of the biggest clearly applies. Not a single other law applies on Chinese roads; not the traffic lights or signs, not the pedestrian allowances, not the painted lanes, designated scooter areas or even the sidewalk. If there is space, they will drive on it. And if you are smaller than whatever is coming at you, right or wrong, you had better move.
Despite all this we have only witnessed a single serious accident. Every driver here operates under the one law. It’s truly amazing to see how this understanding gives way to an organized chaos. In order to move forward in China traffic, every person must push forward. No matter your applied form of motion, 16, 4, 3, or 2 wheels, motorized or not, even if you are just walking, you must obey: find gaps and follow through. If we were to keep to our Canadian customs and wait until a safe distance is created, we would never reach our destination. Crossing the street is done in stages, lane by lane. Drivers will go around you generally if there is space but no one will slow down.
Travel Tip: Until you get the hang of crossing roads solo, join the locals, the bigger the group the better. Keep pace and do as they do. Most importantly, once you get started, do not stop. All traffic assumes you will continue to move and they will maintain their current speed only barely skirting by you.
The use of the horn is also quite different from our expectations. While there is a nearly constant blaring of short toots happening in urban areas, they are hardly ever any more than an announcement. “I’m here!” The horns have actually replaced any use of rearview mirrors or actual checking before changing lanes or turning. The vehicles simply begin drifting as they please. It is the job of those he or she is cutting off to announce themselves. While the system seems to work on the road, for the 20% of people who seem to prefer to drive on the sidewalk, innocent pedestrians like us, and especially unfamiliar foreigners will quickly learn that it is our job to watch out for them, not the other way around.
Most people in China are not licensed and have never had a driving lesson in their life.
If a person is hit by a car, the driver must pay the victim up to 10,000RMB (around US$1,600). That is huge money for most people, so there is real incentive to avoid running over someone. Unfortunately, not unlike China’s Russian neighbours to the north, some desperately people have taken to throwing themselves in traffic for a quick buck. Though it also inspires the hit and run culture. So be careful who you glue yourself to when crossing!