One cloudless August day in 1998, I rented a bicycle and rode straight through the heart of central Beijing. It was the kind of day China’s capital never sees anymore — expansive blue skies, crisp, clean morning air and virtually empty city roads.
I cruised alongside hundreds of other riders crowded into bike lanes nearly as wide as the adjacent avenues. Bicycles dominated the city, outnumbering vehicles ten to one, with most being one variation or another of the classic Flying Pigeon. The riders all moved together in improbable synchronicity, like a shimmering shoal of fish. The lanes were extremely crowded but it felt as if the shoal carried me along and I effortlessly kept pace with everyone else, propelled by the exhilaration of facing my first day in China.
Fast forward to now, after more than 16 years in the country, and I struggle to find ways to keep that exhilaration alive. These days I ride my off-road motorcycle through the streets of Kunming trying my hardest not to flip the bird at every driver that gets in my way. This year, after a decade and a half of self-control, I finally let it fly. I took my right hand off the throttle, thrust my upraised fist toward the offending driver and extended my middle finger to the sky.
I was full of rage and hoped to provoke the same rage in the driver. I wanted to ruin his drive as he had ruined mine. Instead, the driver lifted his index finger, pointed at me and smiled. I could see him mouth two words to his friend in the passenger seat. “Kan! Laowai!” — Look! Foreigner!
I bought my first motorcycle in 2002 when I lived in Dali. I had never even ridden one before, but I planned a solo road trip north along the borders of Myanmar and Tibet. I didn’t have any idea what to expect, even strapping a machete to the side of my saddle just in case a band of ruffians threatened trouble. I never needed the weapon.
The countryside roads weren’t without their dangers. Tractors tore out from side roads without warning. Dogs, chickens and even children seemed to appear out of nowhere. But obstacles aside, I fell in love with China’s countryside and my mind raced with ideas of where to ride to next. With one twist of the throttle I was off to new adventures, making up songs and singing them as loud as I could over the roar of the engine.
But now, after more than a decade of driving in Kunming, I have been transformed. In place of gleeful songs, only obscenities broadcast from my helmet. I tear through the city as if I’m the Road Warrior on the run from murderous bandits. I honk my horn at every intersection as a warning to anyone who dares cross my path. Traffic rules mean little and courtesy even less. At times I feel like the Hulk — usually I’m the mild-mannered Bruce Banner, but with a spark of the ignition, the beast is unleashed.
In the past, I always obeyed traffic rules. I never got a ticket, made sure to yield the right of way and rarely honked my horn. More importantly I never lost my cool. Why then am I now so tempted to throttle so many that cross my path on the city roads? Or perhaps a more intriguing question is: Why am I becoming more and more like the very drivers I detest?
With a traffic culture that favors the aggressive and impatient, it is easy to blame everyone else for turning me into this creature. It is actually more dangerous being a law-abiding driver than an aggressive and selfish one. If you go too slow or stop for a crossing pedestrian, you might end up getting rammed from behind. And on a motorcycle, the safest place to be is out in front of all the traffic. Speeding or running a red light is sometimes the best way to stay out of harm’s way. On China’s roads, it seems that only the strong survive. Unfortunately, this is an attitude that derails any prospect of efficient traffic.
There are very few parts of the world outside of China that have ever seen such an immediate growth in urban traffic. Over the last decade, the number of cars on the roads in cities like Kunming has increased more than tenfold. Urban planners and law enforcement have struggled to adjust. The roads have widened and the laws continually change, but cities need more than just the stroke of a pen to adapt. Efficient traffic systems can’t just be instituted. They are cultural and evolve over time.
The safety of everyone on the road is best guarded when cars yield to motorcycles, motorcycles to bicycles, and bicycles to pedestrians. But the pecking order has been lost and so too has any proper ‘right-of-way’ mentality. Instead, roads in China are often plagued by many who cling to a sense of entitlement. Motorists feel as if they have earned the right of way just by the very purchase of an automobile. And those who can afford even more expensive cars feel that much more entitled. They drive brand new black BMWs, flashing their brights and honking their horns warning everyone ahead – ‘VIP coming through!’
Every time I mount my motorcycle, I do so knowing exactly what to expect. I know that someone will cut me off. I know that an electric scooter will dangerously tear through a red light right as I cross an intersection. I know that some fancy car behind me will honk its horn, urging me to acknowledge his self-importance. So why should I let it surprise me or stir my fury when I know exactly what is likely to happen? Expecting the worst is the best way to avoid the worst. And it should be a lot harder to get angry when I know what is coming.
China has changed at a rate never seen before at any point in time anywhere else on the planet. Everyone is racing to find their place in society, making sure that they don’t get left behind. Traffic culture is only one manifestation of this, and it is constantly evolving. Today’s traffic might be closer to a frenzy of sharks than a shoal of fish, but I’ll be better off passively following the current than angrily fighting against it.
After the middle finger incident earlier this year, I decided that before expecting change from any of the others sharing the road with me, I needed to at least be more responsible for myself. I’ve stopped expecting everything to fix itself all at once, and I try my best to be a part of the evolution by incorporating a little more common courtesy into my daily drives. I am increasingly amazed by how much I receive in return.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t still curse motorists that cross me from time to time, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I am now a perfectly patient driver. But the next time I let the middle finger fly free, I’ll at least try to do it with a smile.