This piece was originally written when I was living in Beijing, sometime between the years of 2011 and 2014. Most likely sometime in 2011. It has been edited from the original version. I feel it’s necessary to add that I really loved living in China, and this was written when I was still in the throes of dealing with culture shock. Eventually, I learned to get over myself.
Commuters in Beijing are probably some of the luckiest people ever. They live in their individual dream worlds as they move through the city on foot, on their bikes and in their cars, armed with cell phones, iPhones, headphones and iPods galore.
Don’t be surprised when you see commuters heedlessly crossing streets, merging into traffic or turning on to new roads without once looking at who’s around them. You’d be lucky to see them looking in the general direction in which they’re traveling. Yet, somehow, everyone makes it to their destinations virtually unscathed.
And don’t forget the aforementioned: they commute in this fashion with some form of electronic gadget plunged deeply into their ears or hovering in front of their faces, furthering distracting themselves from the many accidents they have narrowly avoided with other commuters (who are also fully engaged with the digital rather than the physical world). I am amazed that the day to day carnage on the streets of Beijing is not up to par with the reckless driving and — if it’s possible — reckless walking and biking I see happening every day.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a violence-obsessed person, constantly thinking about death and blood…but it does surprise me that I don’t see more lifeless bodies, totalled bikes and dented, smoking cars scattered around the roads and sidewalks, especially in the more heavily congested areas of the city where even the promise of immediate death does not scare anyone into being more careful and aware of other people on the road.
I sometimes imagine that the reason why people evade massive injury or fatal accidents on a day to day basis is due to another popular Chinese custom: spitting.
This practice also takes place on the streets of Beijing and coincidentally, it also seems to be something where proximity to others holds very little concern to the person engaging in the act. It’s as if spitting creates this protective sphere around the people here; not only does it shield them from my scathing glares when they happen to spit mere centimeters away from my feet, but it also shields them from being hit by cars, bikes and other people when they walk or drive or bike around the city.
Already, after living here for only five months, I’ve nearly been injured and/or killed several dozen times. I’ve also stepped in A LOT of fresh spit.
On one occasion, I was walking to a restaurant in a small alley behind a popular outdoor mall called The Village. Of course, since this is one of the more heavily congested places for both tourist and local pedestrians, all of the cars, vans and trucks conclude that this is the best street to drive through for shortcuts to the main road.
On this rarest of occasions, the car trying to smoothly drive through hordes of people was driving fairly slowly and may actually have been taking into account the value of a human life. (This is not always the case for people who drive cars in the city.) At one point, I had to stop and look at this foolhardy driver trying to move through such a congested street full of walking people who barely had enough room to move around other people.
The closer he got to me, the more I realized that he wasn’t really watching where he was going.
And there I stood, with no small crevice to squeeze myself into to get out of his way, as he ran his car into my leg with his front tire. Granted, it was a slow moving tap and he eventually stopped slowly pushing me forward with the hood of his car; but again, it was my body vs. his car.
The spit shield was broken.
He sheepishly looked up at me, finally making human to human contact, and mumbled a quick “Duì buqĭ.” I looked at him, utterly flabbergasted. What should I have said to him? “Méi guān xi. You only ran into my leg with your car,” while politely wiping the dirty tire tracks off of my jeans…
That’s just one of the more innocuous occasions where I have had a literal run-in with another commuter on the street. I digress from detailing the more frightening encounters. Commuters here experience these kinds of near-disasters on a daily basis, and since I’m parting of the commuting crew, I guess there’s no escaping it.
Beijingers are such pros at mentally blocking near-death experiences on the streets of Beijing from their minds. I’m not…yet. In the meantime, while I’m still learning how to be a proper Beijinger, here are a few pointers I’d like to share with locals here regarding universal commuting etiquette:
- In a competition with cars vs. people or bikes, cars will always win. And cars, I don’t think that’s a game you really want to play. Speaking for walking people and bikers, we’d like not to die, please.
- Walking in the middle of a bike lane with your back to oncoming traffic and with headphones on so you can’t hear the incessantly ringing bells warning you to move out of the way is not, I repeat not, good for your general physical health.
- Walking in bike lanes against oncoming traffic when there is a perfectly nice and well-paved sidewalk literally inches from you that will also take you where you need to go is annoying…to me. One day I will hit you for good measure.
- Beeping or ringing your bike bell at other people to warn them to move out the way is fine…when there is actually a place for someone to move so you can pass. Analyze the road space situation first prior to beeping. Otherwise I will annoyingly (and slowly) ride my bike in the exact middle of the bike lane, even when I have room to move over for you.
- Bike lanes are for bikes. Not people. Not cars. It is not a parking lot. Or a place to hang out and chat on the phone or with your friends. If you are confused about what the space is for, look at the nice picture on the asphalt: of a bike.
- Merging onto oncoming traffic, turning to the left or right and stopping in front of bike/car lanes suddenly is not a good idea. That is, if you want to keep your nice, shiny Audi from collecting dents from my foot.
- Headphones, cell phones and electronic games are probably best spent using when you don’t have torrents of people, cars and bikes swirling around you promising to hit you — or at the very least curse at you — when swerving out of your path and thereby saving your life for another day.
- Lastly, the golden rule: left, right and left again when crossing any kind of street, big or small. It will save you and me a lot of grief.
Or maybe I should just take up spitting.