Friday, December 30, 2011

Culture Corner: The sidewalk

Imagine walking down an empty city sidewalk when you spot someone walking in your direction.  As they head directly toward you, what do you do? Move slightly to the right as a polite gesture so the two of you may pass unhindered? If you answered ‘no’ to this question, you are either from a country where people drive on the left side of the road, or, you are amongst a minority of people and fit to take your first day’s walk in China. (There are of course other exceptions, maybe there was something horrid spattering the right side so you had to go to the left side…)

When someone is walking towards you in China, they rarely make an attempt to get out of your way, and combining this one person with the 1.3 billion walking the streets, driving mopeds on the sidewalk, and cruising around on bicycles, I often feel like a ballerina, tip-toeing, dancing, and curtseying my way through the throng, trying to preserve what little semblance of personal space I’ve preserved after spending the past eight months in Nanjing. They press close.  Approaching somebody from behind on the sidewalk is even funnier. 

A relaxed nation of amblers and meanderers, going anywhere for the Chinese at a hurried or steady pace is not often thought of.  Instead, the pleasantries of walking are savored, hands clasped behind the back and eyes to the sky in leisurely stroll.  Because of the wandering nature of these footsteps, I often wonder if they have eyes in the backs of their heads and are intentionally trying to get in the way as I approach from behind. (Of course they’re not.) It seems no amount of pre-meditation or planning can allow me past without them subconsciously knowing which side I intend to pass them on and suddenly swerving into my path. I’ve tried feinting like a ball player, but somehow they still know and take that “surprise” step in the opposite direction directly in front of me. I have to laugh at this. But, this is not the only game the Chinese enjoy playing in public places.

Just like the mother in the grocery store who occupies the entire width of the aisle as she ponders which brand of peanut butter has more riboflavin, another popular sidewalk technique employed in China is the “sudden stop for no good reason”.  And it is not only people who stop directly in front of you causing you to alter the location of your next footstep, but bicycles and mopeds as well - occasionally with the owner looking you directly in the eye and smiling as he stops his bicycle on your toes and goes in a store, leaving you to walk around the obstacle he’s given you.  The preferred location for this little trick is critical junctures, places where the flow of pedestrians and assorted wheeled vehicles must to come to a complete stop and wait as the trickster babbles to a friend, sends a text message, or stares at the sky. Such places, are, for example, the middle of stairwells and entrances to stores. My favorite is the man who gets on the bus, pays the driver, and stops, blocking the aisle and causing the driver to tell him: “Move to the back of the bus idiot so the other fifty people waiting can get on.” I ask myself: “How can this man not be aware of the crowd behind him waiting to get on the bus?” If it happened once or twice, it would be normal. But as situations like this happen so frequently, it makes me wonder if they are completely unaware of the other people moving around them in society, or just don’t care. Maybe the large numbers have calloused them?

One day while walking down a sidewalk, on my way to teach, a man stopped his bicycle in front me.  He then turned the bike sideways to block the entire sidewalk, put down the kickstand, and entered the store, all the while smiling at me, white teeth flashing happiness.  It was plain and simple as that, not a hint of malice.  One of the stranger occurrences of my life in China, it could have been me, an old lady, anyone, and he would have done the same thing.  Long after walking onto the street around his bicycle to continue on my way, I’m still pondering this bit of social insensitivity.

Re-reading what I just wrote makes me sound like an impatient person, and through the first few months I definitely was when dealing with Chinese mannerism in daily public situations. But, I’ve come to (or forced myself to come to) laugh at the sidewalk cha-cha I do every time I walk somewhere. I feel like Frogger. Up up down left left up right down right right up up left right down up up left left right up up… My personal space has dwindled to a point of near non-existence. I no longer feel uncomfortable having complete strangers caked onto me riding in an elevator, or think someone is trying to steal something from me when my bookbag is jostled continuously. So, if when I return to the US I feel the desire to give extra hugs or sit a little closer than usual, slap me, I’ll come out of it eventually.

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