One of our first weekends in Yanji, before we had internet access at our apartment, Gavin and I slept at the house attached to the school on Saturday night so that we could watch the Notre Dame Football game the next morning and eat breakfast with the Salesians. After breakfast, one of the brothers offered to drive us back into the city and drop us off at the Catholic Church in the city. We obviously accepted the offer and soon enough we were sitting in the backseat of their small SUV as he drove us down the main north/south street that comes into Yanji from the countryside.
The street was under construction at the time and there was really nothing that resembled lanes. Cars were literally moving in every possible direction, turning into traffic, merging into traffic, and barreling ahead. Soon enough we came to a point of congestion (the only congestion I’ve seen in Yanji in the four months since) and two lines of cars had to merge together. The street was a haphazard mess, and we were stuck in the middle of it not really in either line.
To our left was a long bus that was going into town and to our right was a truck. These vehicles weren’t moving parallel to each other, but were merging into each other—and we were between them. Confounded by what was going on, and wondering why our driver was still moving the car forward, I quickly figured out what I would do if the car actually became pinned between the bus and the truck.
After determining that I could climb out the sun roof while the sides of the car compacted in on each other, I figured that I would have plenty of time to safely run off the back of the car and out of danger. Luckily, I didn’t have to do this because the traffic seemed to magically work its way out, and we made it to the church safely.
This was my first of many harrowing experiences on the wild and crazy streets of Yanji.
Walking across the streets of Yanji is like playing a game of Frogger (not that I’ve ever actually played Frogger, I just remember that infamous Seinfeld episode). Because stoplights are ignored, cars turn at crazy angles, and crosswalks don’t really mean anything, the best way to get across the street is to just start walking across whenever you feel like it. If there is an opening in the traffic, you just go for it.
The interesting thing about this strategy is that it is not necessarily beneficial to look both ways when crossing the street. Sometimes, it is actually in your best interest to just start walking. You see, while the cars here move in an incredibly unpredictable manner, the drivers of these cars seem to assume that pedestrians will move across the street in the most predictable manner possible.
When I walk across a busy street in America (when I jaywalk, I suppose), I make sure to look both ways. I only walk when there are no cars coming, and if cars are coming quickly I make sure to run. Here in Yanji, however, it’s not a good idea to run if cars are coming. Because everybody just seems to walk across the street, oncoming traffic will swerve out of your way as you cross. However, if you just walk across the street you also have to keep moving at the same pace and in the same direction. If you see a car coming and try to run, you might get hit as a car tries to swerve around you.
Furthermore, the sidewalks in Yanji are not safe from the wild unpredictability of cars. Not only do cars seemingly drive down the sidewalk whenever the drivers feel like it, but the sidewalks are also seemingly used as parking areas for cars. If a car needs to get into a certain restaurant or store, they just park their on the sidewalk in front of the place and leave it there.
In other words, automobile traffic here in Yanji is like a lawless post-apocalyptic wasteland (albeit one that has plenty of gasoline).
Since most people in Yanji seemingly don’t have their own cars (which made things very awkward when my Chinese teacher asked me how many cars my family owns), the teachers get to school by being picked up by a bus that the school owns; a bus that we call the teacher bus.
Gavin and I get on the teacher bus at the last stop, and most days every seat is taken. Because of this, we usually end up standing in the aisle of the bus and watch as the driver deftly makes his way through the traffic as the bus leaves the city and enters the countryside where our schools is located (there’s no suburban area to pass through).
The driver smoothly moves from left to right around trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, tractors, and horse-pulled carts. He never worries if there are any cars in the other lanes and he never worries about signaling. He just flows from lane to lane and side to side without noticing what the cars behind him or next to him might be doing. Sometimes he honks to ostensibly let the cars in front of him know that he is about to pass, but he never seems to be stressed or worried about the chaos around him.
I, however, AM worried about what is going on around him.
Every time the bus starts to drift from one side to another I think that he is going to sideswipe another vehicle or plow over some grandmother walking back from the market. I pay attention to the cars in front of us, and can’t believe some of the indescribable maneuvers that the bus and other cars make. I oftentimes find this bus ride to be legitimately scary.
At first I thought it was weird that nobody else on the bus seemed at all concerned about the chaotic driving and the inherent danger in it, but then I realized what should have been obvious: most of the other teachers have probably never actually driven cars. Sure, some of the teachers might have spouses that have cars, but more than likely these teachers have never, and will never drive their own cars.
I haven’t driven in three and a half months, but these teachers have probably NEVER driven a car.
Aside from the teacher bus (and the minibuses that are even more terrifying), the other main way that we get around Yanji is by taking cabs. Now I spent all of my senior year at Notre Dame riding with my own crazy Chinese cab driver, but nothing could have prepared me for the insane things that happen every time I enter a Chinese cab.
One morning when we had to take a cab to school we hailed it in front of our apartment and it drove out towards the main street. Cars have to turn left onto the main street from our apartment to get to school, and on this particular morning the cab driver was having trouble finding an opening to enter on the far side of the road. It wasn’t that he actually waited at all to find an opening; he just turned straight out into oncoming traffic as soon as he got to the intersection.
Then, instead of waiting in the middle of the road while cars swerved around him (as they were doing), our cab driver decided it was a good idea to just start driving down the wrong side of the road until he found an opening to merge into.
As we watched the cars coming straight towards us and swerving around us, I reached for the seatbelt. Quickly remembering that the back seats of cabs in Yanji HAVE NO SEATBELTS, I braced myself for the collision that was bound to occur. I remembered what one American had told us at Thanksgiving Dinner: “I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am going to die in a Chinese taxi.”
I don’t want to die in a Chinese taxi . . . this is crazy . . . there are cars coming straight towards us . . . what rational person could think this is a good idea . . . is there any real process for granting drivers licenses here . . . are there any traffic laws?
Luckily, or maybe just normally, we survived that ordeal and many other adventures on the wild ride that is a Yanji taxi.
Eventually, I found out that there is an important and substantial difference between the driving practices in China and those in the United States. When a car is merging into traffic in the United States (like on a highway, or when turning onto a busy street, or when simply changing lanes) the cars that are going straight always have the right of way. If you want to merge you have to check your blind spots and make sure that there isn’t a car coming towards you. If you are turning onto a busier street, you have to wait until there is an opening.
In China, things are the complete opposite as merging cars have the right of way. This means that if you are driving straight and a car turns out in front of you, you need to either slow down or swerve out of the way to avoid them. If a car starts to merge towards you, you have to slow down to let it in. Apparently the logic behind this is that it prevents merging cars from waiting forever.
While this makes some sense in theory, it doesn’t make any sense in practice. Not only does it completely overcomplicate the entire organism of traffic, but it wastes plenty of energy in braking. These cars might flow lawlessly from lane to lane, but the way they do it makes no sense and has to cause more deaths by auto accidents.
Wondering about this, I decided to do a bit of research and turned to the one place that any college graduate would turn: Wikipedia. Shockingly, on the Wikipedia page for Auto Collisions I found this graph that shows an indistinguishable difference between the per capita traffic related deaths in the United States and China. How could this be? Do their chaotic traffic customs and terrifying drivers actually result in the same level of safety as the United States?
Pondering whether this was just another cultural difference that I would have to accept, or if Wikipedia had actually failed me for once, I realized that the above graph is the wrong statistic. Of course per capita traffic related deaths in China are going to be low—there are over billion people here, and most of them evidently do not own cars. So I found the right statistic: deaths per 10,000 motor vehicles. Using this statistic, which is much better to gauge how dangerous they drive, I found that China has 13 times as many deaths as the United States does.
But what does all this mean?
Many of the things I experience in China that I find to be strange or bizarre, I just chalk up to cultural differences. Sure the toilets are different, or we can’t control our own heat, or there are complicated customs related to drinking beer; while I might find these things weird and frustrating, they are just cultural differences that I need to be able to accept if I am going to live here. The American way of drinking beer isn’t necessarily better, it is just different/
I can’t pin everything on cultural differences however, or even accept that things are just different here. When it comes to driving and the chaotic roads, I believe this isn’t a mere case of cultural differences, but an instance where the way that we do it in America is just plain superior.
So unlike other things that might be worth considering, trying, and experiencing; with the traffic and the roads, I just have to do my best to survive—because I have no intention of dying in a Chinese taxi.
Endnote: After reading through this, I realized that I probably make things out to be worse than they really are. While I certainly didn’t lie about anything here (or even really exaggerate anything), I just want you all to know that I am not in any mortal danger here. Please don’t fear for my safety after reading this—Merry Christmas.