This story written by Patti Isaacs
In the early 1980s, China had just opened to the West but was still emphatically communist. People dressed in nearly identical Mao jackets and called each other “comrade.” Food shortages were common, a radio was a luxury, and bicycles transported the masses. Curtained limousines with white-gloved drivers were the privilege of a few highly-ranked officials. The locals stopped to stare, open-mouthed, when one passed by.
At that time, I lived in the ancient Chinese capital of Xi’an, known for the army of terracotta soldiers unearthed there only six years earlier. I returned in late 2005 to find a metropolis with skyscrapers and a high-tech zones surrounded by freeways. In a quarter century, apartment building have replaced the traditional courtyard homes inside Xi’an’s city wall; Audis and Hyundais cruise roads once traveled by donkey carts and the occasional commune truck. Bicycle traffic is down now that capitalism is up.
Experiencing a city by foot, bicycle, taxi, and bus provides a glimpse of the social and cultural differences that separate China from the West. To Western eyes, traffic in China appears utterly chaotic. Drivers run red lights and turn in front of oncoming cars, pedestrians blithely step in front of trucks, a bicyclist hogs the center lane while glancing over his shoulder to deliver a withering look to the guy behind the wheel of a dump truck.
In the twenty-first century, The Chinese still follow patterns of movement established when most transportation was human- or donkey-powered. Never big on queuing, they don't so much drive in their lanes as they jostle to fill any available space. Released from the constraints of enforced egalitarianism, the few who can now afford cars cheerfully lord it over those who can’t, squeezing cyclists against the curb and nearly clipping pedestrians who brave the crosswalks. Motorists unapologetically occupy a place in the pecking order that used to be reserved for the most well-placed Party operatives.
Driving in China involves many games of chicken followed by a series of dances. Drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians constantly eye and evaluate each other, but like bighorn sheep who establish dominance by butting heads, they usually avoid the carnage of a fight to the death. Instead, once it’s been decided who leads, they arrange themselves, with the flawless timing of Peking Opera acrobats, into a flowing, interwoven pattern. Their feet hover the brake pedals even as they try to outrun every other motorist on the road to reach the spot they want.
If Americans tried this, we would surely kill each other. We are a society of laws and not men, intent on following the rulebook. And too many of us are certain we are the one who should be leading the dance.
As addicted as they are to their cell phones, few Chinese use them as they drive. Nor do they shave, eat, apply makeup, or read the newspaper behind the wheel. Driving there is serious business. The Chinese acknowledge that not everyone is up to the task; they know their traffic is fearsome, with a worldwide reputation.
These days, most locals use bikes only to get around the quiet neighborhood streets. To venture into the wider city, they prefer the relative safety of a bus or taxi. So when an American regularly bicycles to downtown Xi’an, her Chinese friends voice their respect—welcome respect, as the expatriate is incompetent at many things in her adopted hometown.
Maybe because Xi'an now has central heating, email, and supermarkets, the exotic is harder to find. Getting on a bike, threading into the traffic tapestry, and learning to deliver the obligatory dismissive look carries the rider to a place many people never visit.
This piece is an excerpt from a book Patti is writing about her experiences living in China in 1981 and 2005. You can read more at her blog, timetravelinchina.wordpress.com
photo by patti