Each year I have to learn to walk. I don’t mean like a toddler taking his first steps, but to “go with the flow.” It is darn crowded over here, especially during noon and after-work rush hours. Westerners are used to a couple of feet of interpersonal distance between you and the next person. It is less than a foot over here, and elbow-to-elbow.
I recall my experience in 1992 in Shanghai, before they built a fabulous subway that pulled half the population off of the street into that long underground shopping mall. Walking along the crowded
sidewalk, I heard the “chang” of a bicycle bell behind me and I abruptly stopped. Bump-bump-bump went the three pedestrians behind me. I had caused a “rear-end” pile-up!
But these incessant beeps and honks are merely signals to “be aware” that they are moving along too—just don’t abruptly change your trajectory without looking. In the West, honking proclaims that “I have the right of way; I’m coming through. Get out of my way!” In China, these sounds are simply choreographing how everyone can “go with the flow.” And when occasionally it does get gridlocked, as when three lanes of traffic turn left onto a two-lane street, the problem is more of a group dilemma of “how do we get out of this” and not an “I had the right of way so get out of my way” situation.
It is fun to people-watch; that is, just stand back and watch how these massive numbers of people flow. As a pedestrian walks toward a narrow point, there are others walking from the other direction, and a faster motorbike is also converging. Each adjusts just a little to speed up or slow down and everyone makes it through the choke-point without stopping or colliding. I suspect that this daily experience that
began in early childhood must provide an innate advantage in vector mathematics: those school math questions about a train that leaves Station A at a certain speed and a second train leaves from the other direction at another speed, etc.?
By the time small schoolchildren are walking to school in their uniforms—about 6 years old—they can, all alone, judge the two-way traffic and walk to the center when the lane coming from the left has a
gap. They then wait at the meridian stripe as cars cruise by in front and behind them, until a gap appears to finish crossing. Many American high school kids could not manage that here without endangering
everyone. But in China, you learn to go with the flow at an early age.
I have been here a month and taken a taxi once. It cost me five yuan, less than a U.S. dollar. Unless it is raining, there are always empty taxis passing each minute. In the biggest cities in China, Uber-like operations are beginning to operate. But here in Yangling, only the green-and-orange taxis are legal for taxi-service. Occasionally a private car operates as a personal taxi service; it is called a “hei che” or black car, and is illegal.
In Shanghai, all of the taxis are Volkswagen Santana models, since that is assembled there. In Wuhan, formerly a French concession, all of the taxis are Citreons, a French brand made in Wuhan. Folks support their local industry. But Yangling has no car factories, so we have a mix of car brands.
Usually I ride the bus between north to south campus, perhaps 40 times now. That costs one yuan or about 18 cents. The elderly retired folks ride free; but they have a card they must always show. Sometimes the bus is nearly empty. Other times it is packed, with folks standing, right down into the door wells.
What melts my heart in China is that when bus seats are all full, the college students and young adults immediately get up and give their seat to any mother who gets on with a baby in arms or toddler in tow. It is automatic, with no nod of thanks needed. This also occurs when elderly folks get on the bus. When I mention this at the university, my professor colleagues are surprised at my surprise. “It is just the Chinese way,” they shrug. So far, I have yielded my seat twice—it is just the right thing to do.
I am 71, but I look much younger—or so I think. And then yesterday, when I got on the bus, a young college student got up and gave me his seat. I had no option but to nod and take the seat. Grief! I don’t even have white hair yet.
(But you know, it IS more comfortable sitting down in a moving bus.)
John Richard Schrock is a distinguished professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Emporia State University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org