what I’ve learned from playing in beijing traffic

The *bad Asian driver* stereotype never made much sense to me. I don’t mean that in some *I can’t derive the humor from up here on my high horse* kind of way – it just doesn’t fit with all the other stereotypes.

A car, after all, is an advanced piece of machinery that demands intelligence and quick reactions. If you’re going to assume an entire group of humans are all flying kung-fu calculus wizards – and if in fact a subset of that group actually designs and build most of the best-selling cars in America you’d think “bad drivers” would be pretty low on your list of go-to racial insults.

So no, I never really got the joke.

Then I came to China.

    [Now I get it.]

Before we go any further, let me say this: we’ve known for a long damn time that biological races are bullshit; we made them up to make ourselves feel better. There is obviously no relation between a person’s skin color and their ability to operate an automobile. Everything I’m about to say has a societal/economic/political/statistical explanation that has nothing to do with anyone’s DNA, melanin levels, or eye shape.

Please don’t put me in the basket of deplorables, internet.


Now – having said all that, China has some of the worst f@#king drivers on the planet. People drive the wrong way, treat lights as a suggestion, park just about anywhere, stop in the middle of crowded streets, and generally seem more willing to plow through a little old lady walking her six puppies than wait an extra minute for the next green. The first time I got into a car in China, I spent the entire ride utterly convinced I was going to die. Several hundred rides later, I still like to make sure my affairs are in order before getting into a taxi.

But none of this horror show is proof of some kind of genetic penchant for shitty driving. If you back up and look at the circumstances, it all makes sense in a *perfect storm* sort of way. China has some of the worst traffic for the same reason they have the worst air pollution – they’ve crammed a hundred years of development into a few decades. In the early 1980’s there were hardly any cars – now they’ve got nearly as many drivers as the U.S. has people. The car culture is new, the roads are new – hell, most of the drivers are new. Just look at how much chaos a (relatively tiny) number of cars brought to America before we figured out what the hell we were doing.


well, golly gee willikers!

To put Beijing traffic into perspective, imagine several New York Cities put together – ten times the area, three times as many people and cars – where almost no one over the age of 50 ever learned to drive. 


Of course, the numbers don’t explain it all. One of the best professors I’ve ever had used traffic to explain a key difference between Chinese and Western culture without casting any judgement on either side. I’m not sure how much I trust myself to recreate it, but here goes: 

In the West, we consider the individual to be the basic unit of society; in China, it’s the family. We Westerners think of ourselves as – ideally – part of a structured machine that holds everyone accountable to the rules; the Chinese see themselves as part of an organic system where what is *good* and *bad* is highly dependent on what is best for harmony and stability. 

When two people pull up to an intersection in America, they look at the signs and the lights and the jackass in the case of a collision is the person who broke the rules. When two people face off in Chinese traffic, they look at each other and the general situation; the jackass in the case of a collision is the one who was unable the keep the system flowing by whatever means necessary. 

[of course, sometimes the jackass is just the jackass]

The point is, driving here – for now, at least – is a nightmare. Between the enormous traffic jams and the prohibitive cost of cars (not to mention the license plates), many people forgo the automobile in favor of bikes, electric scooters, motorcycles, and a variety of other two-wheeled options. I myself purchased a lovely little e-bike about a year ago and have had great fun weaving in and out of traffic and generally contributing to the chaos just as much as anyone else; hopefully this lends itself to my point that race has nothing to do with any of this. 

Of course, for all the highfalutin societal reasons for the crazy traffic, there are also people – as in any place – who are just worthless sacks of fecal matter. A few weeks back, one such gentleman introduced himself to me by pulling a blind left onto the wrong side of the road and plowing his motorcycle directly into the front of my bike, a point in space which at this point pretty much consists of duct tape and hope.


Refusing to take the hint from the universe, I continued to speed merrily along the streets of Beijing – until the other night, when an unfortunate encounter with some impatient cars and a rain-slicked road gave me a new appreciation for how tough Frogger’s job is.


[that ain’t guyliner]

Not wishing to find out what my third strike would be like, I have hung up my figurative helmet (I suppose a literal helmet would have been a good idea). Outside, the crazy traffic continues – and even if they started executing rule-breakers on the spot tomorrow, the sheer number of people all needing to drive in the same direction at the same time pretty much puts the kibosh on any hopes for short-term improvement. I still had the time of my life zipping around the city for the past year, though; between the smog, masks, encroaching desert, and psychotic drivers, commuting in Beijing is basically one flaming electric guitar (and a lot of open space) away from being Fury Road.


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