Walking in Shanghai is an extreme sport: constantly looking down to avoid stepping in the numerous lung oysters hocked up and unashamedly deposited on the sidewalk, watching out for the random and frequent topographic changes—steps, ledges and ramps that pop up in the weirdest places and indicate that engineers have little input in construction decisions; dodging the multitude of bikes and scooters that travel the sidewalk, and crossing streets where drivers reign supreme and apparently have never been instructed to yield, or stop.
China has a tradition bound, hierarchical view of the world, reinforced by generations of Emperor to peasant history and it covers all aspects of society; your employment is judged by society, at the apex, Communist Party officials occupying the coveted top spot (think Emperors), followed by business leaders of government owned industries (banking, energy), wealthy business executives (real estate usually), and on down until you get to the street sweepers and public toilet attendants. Everyone is acutely aware of their position—and yours, too.
This hierarchical mindset also plays out on the city’s streets too, with bigger equaling better and therefore getting the right-of-way at all times. Buses operate with impunity, ignoring traffic lights and pedestrians alike; luxury vehicles, of which there are many, are next in importance (and arrogance) often racing around stopped traffic to get to the front of the line. Taxi drivers don’t even slow down to make a right on red and will often pass traffic by driving in oncoming lanes; scooters and bicycles regularly drive against traffic, or, if traffic gets too crowded, they just ride on the sidewalks. In all this mess, it is left to the pedestrian to get the hell out f the way. As low person on this Darwinian ladder, crossing the street –even in a crosswalk with the green signal in your favor– requires dodging cars, bikes and buses that drive as if you aren’t there, and every Chinese person that I’ve seen so far plays by these rules, yielding to vehicles and ceding the right of way.
I’m not Chinese. I have a New Yorker’s aggressive attitude combined with a Seattleite’s militant belief in the supremacy of the Walk / Don’t Walk sign. Crosswalks are sacrosanct.
Last week, walking to the bank in the Lujiazui district, I was preparing to cross a wide boulevard, in the crosswalk and with the walk sign when two Chinese women ahead of me stopped; they saw a white, Buick mini-van racing through the red light, turning without slowing, . I never broke stride, stepped off the curb, eyes firmly fixed on the driver’s side of the windshield. Three steps into the crosswalk the nose of the minivan dove toward the stripes painted on the pavement as the driver stood on the brakes. Unusual behavior for a Chinese driver, normally they will just swerve around you without stopping. I kept walking, looking at the driver and pointing at the walk sign. And then I noticed, the driver was not Chinese, he was a westerner. We locked eyes and he raised both hands in surrender; as I continued past he lowered the passenger window and apologized. I smiled and waved, grateful that his western driving standards overcame his bad Chinese driving habits. As I glanced back at the intersection I noticed 8 people stood riveted on the curb despite the green walk signal in their favor; they were waiting for the driver to continue. Instead he waved them across and waited patiently.
Order was restored to my universe, if only for a moment.