Something I’ve loved about my time here in China is taking note of all the ways that China is different from my hometown. Even just walking down the street, there are a dozen reminders that I am having a foreign experience. I’ll be trying to post a series of smaller posts to capture some of these reminders. Today’s topic: driving.
Scooters are a fairly common mode of transportation. When I say “scooters” that really includes a whole spectrum of two-wheeled transportation—there are mopeds, motorized bicycles (complete with pedals), noisy dirt bikes and motorcycles both new and ancient. For the sake of simplicity I’ll just lump them all into the term “scooter.” Here in China scooters may serve as the vehicle for an entire family—I’ve seem a man driving a scooter with a child standing in front of him, a toddler sandwiched between himself and his wife, and a baby in his wife’s arms. Not every scooter comes with a built-in passenger seat, but the owners are resourceful. I’ve seen cushions taped to cargo areas. There have been child seats tied to the footboard. In cases where the child is old enough to hold on, but young enough to be short, they’ll simply stand on the footboard and hold on to the rearview mirrors.
On very sunny or rainy days some scooter drivers add umbrellas to their scooters (some are made specifically for scooters and some are simple umbrellas attached somehow to the frame—or even just held up by passengers). Another solution in rainy weather is to get a “scooter poncho.” These don’t just cover you—that would still leave ample openings for splashing water—these ponchos drape over yourself and your entire scooter! Even in fair weather, most scooter drivers cover themselves somehow. In some cases this is just a jacket worn backward. In other cases it’s something like a snuggie, but made of a material like an oven-mitt. There are oven-mitt-like gloves that encase the handlebars and completely enclose the hands and some drivers wear elastic-banded sleeves over their forearms. Helmet wearing isn’t strictly observed and when it is it’s sometimes interesting to see what is counted as a helmet (such as a hard-hat for construction).
The most versatile of all vehicles, scooters are driven on the freeway, on the roads, and on the sidewalk—if a scooter can fit, then it’s considered fair game. They seem to obey their own traffic laws. I’ve seen scooter drivers that get stopped at a red light on the road and hop up onto the sidewalk to continue on their way. I’ve seen a man driving his scooter in the street at a crawl, texting the whole time. I’ve been walking through crowds in dense, stall-laden markets only to hear the tell-tale honk of a scooter asking for room to get through. They are everywhere.
Driving in China is interesting in general. Sometimes there are three lanes of traffic on a two-lane road. Sometimes a car backs out of a parking spot into the street, seemingly with no regard for the oncoming traffic, and the oncoming cars respond by cutting into the closest lane. Sometimes it almost feels like driving is more of a conversation than a rule-regulated action here. A big part of this conversation is honking. Here honking means so many things! It might mean “coming up on your right!” or perhaps “speed up.” Sometimes it’s “trying to get past you” or quite simply “I’m bigger than you, so get out of my way.” Most of my experience with driving in China has been on buses and it’s interesting to see the driver muscle his way around the streets. For a bus in China, left turns don’t yield on green. I’ve seen bus drivers boldly pull their bus out into the intersection, right in the path of oncoming traffic, slowing to a crawl if they need to let an errant scooter scurry out of the way, but never stopping completely. I’ve seen bus drivers lay on their horns until the scooters in front of them move enough for the bus to maneuver around. If you’re a big vehicle, the other vehicles better just get out of your way.