How to Cross the Street in China

An Excerpt from China Survival GuideChina Survival Guide 3rd edition

By Larry and Qin Herzberg

Larry Herzberg and Qin Herzberg, a married couple, are professors of Chinese language and culture at Calvin College in Michigan. They travel to China frequently, both with students and without, and have been featured travel experts on MSNBC and other outlets. Qin and Larry live in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and are also coauthors of “Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar: A Student’s Guide to Correct Structures and Common Errors” (Stone Bridge Press, 2011). This is a recently updated 3rd edition of the popular China Survival Guide.

The Fun of Walking the Streets

The fun of walking around a Chinese city is that so much life takes place out on the streets. In a developed nation like the U.S., most life takes place behind closed doors. In a society steeped in history and tradition like China, much more happens right out in the open—that’s simply the way it’s been for centuries. For one thing, most Chinese still don’t own a car.

They walk or take a bicycle or a bus to where they need to go, instead of each being encased in their own little bubble, out of touch with other people. For another, Chinese homes and apartments are much smaller than those in developed countries.

Activities like washing clothes or cleaning vegetables, reading the newspaper, or even brushing one’s teeth are often done right out in public in full view of passersby.

One more big reason why so much of daily life can be glimpsed outdoors is that in China there have been as many as two hundred million people who left their homes in small towns or the countryside to try to make a better life in the large cities.

That means there is a sizeable population in every major Chinese city without any fixed abode. They eat, play cards and chess, and carry on their daily lives totally on the streets. In addition, Chinese cities are a giant collection of a myriad small shops and vendors’ stalls and eateries that are often right on the street or with their storefront totally open to the street.

Beyond going to the major tourist sites in any Chinese city, it behooves any foreign tourist to wander the streets and see how the Chinese really live. It’s a feast for the senses and a photographer’s delight.

There are two problems that a foreigner faces, however, when walking the streets of a Chinese city that one does not encounter in a country like the U.S. Neither has to do with personal safety. As we keep insisting, you are much safer walking the streets of Beijing or Shanghai, even at midnight, than you are walking in midday in your hometown in the U.S., whether that town is New York City or Pella, Iowa.

Crossing a street is a delicate art in China.
Crossing a street is a delicate art in China.

No one has a gun, the police are everywhere, albeit often undercover, and serious crime is still a fraction of what it is in America. No, the two problems you face are ones for which most Americans are unprepared.

People, People, Everywhere!

The first difficulty in walking down the street in China is the sea of humanity through which you must wade in order to get where you’re going. Unless you spend a good deal of time in downtown Manhattan or Chicago, chances are you aren’t used to walking much.

And when you do walk, you’re used to being able to walk pretty much as fast as you’d like. In a Chinese city you have to learn to slow your pace because there will always be hundreds of people in front of you, behind you, and alongside you.

Imagine the most popular store in your hometown the day before Christmas, when shoppers are knocking each other over to get to grab last-minute presents for friends and family.

Now picture the density of people at a hundred times that of the store on Christmas Eve. Finally, multiply the number of people by ten thousand. Place them out on the main street of your hometown and imagine them all trying to get somewhere at the same time.

People, people people are everywhere in China.
People, people are everywhere in China.

You now have some idea of what it’s like on a typical Chinese city street at almost any time of the day or night. You’re just not going to get anywhere very fast. The only way for you and your companion to walk side by side is for you to do what the Chinese do, which is to hold each other tightly by the hand or, preferably, link arms.

The crowded streets of Chinese cities, however, are only a minor inconvenience compared to the other problem faced by tourists when walking around a Chinese city. This is a problem that endangers your life almost every minute. We refer, of course, to crossing the street.

Your Life in Your Hands

Here you are taking your life in your hands unless you realize that the Chinese operate under a completely different set of rules when it comes to things like “right of way.” Crossing the street in China requires the watchfulness of an eagle, the agility of a mountain lion, the guile of a fox, and the luck of the Irish to make it across safely.

If, however, you pay attention to the simple rules below, you may make it across the street and live to tell about it. Skip this section and you may end up spending the rest of your China trip learning more than you ever wanted to know about Chinese hospitals.

Crossing the Street

In the U.S. the pedestrian has the right of way. When the walk light comes on, the pedestrian may usually safely cross the street, checking briefly to see that all traffic has come to a halt. In China, the pedestrian NEVER has the right of way. In fact, the right of way goes to the biggest and fastest vehicle. There’s no written law that states this. Everyone just seems to understand.

It’s simple logic, really. Big trucks and buses take right of way over smaller buses, which lord it over taxis, which bully private cars. Taxis hold sway over other cars because owners of private autos don’t want to damage their shiny new treasure, whereas most taxi drivers in China seem to have definite suicidal tendencies more akin to those of “kamikaze” pilots.

Larry and Quin Herzberg.
Larry and Qin Herzberg.

Any motorized vehicle, including motorcycles, has the right of way over bicycles, whose riders will not hesitate to run over a pedestrian who dares question the vehicular pecking order by walking in front of them.

While most vehicles do obey the stop and go lights, the millions of bicycle riders in China never worry about a little thing like a traffic light. Those, it seems, are just for cars and buses. Bicyclists may cross your path whether you have the walk light or not. The pedestrian is the low man or woman on the totem pole of Chinese traffic, the lowest link on the transportation evolutionary scale. Crossing a street is like playing a real-life game of “Frogger.”

How to cross the road when there are mad bicyclists coming at you from every direction and a constant stream of cars and buses? Learn from herds of wildebeests or antelope in the Serengeti. They know there is safety in numbers. Those that stray from the herd are the ones that usually end up getting eaten.

So do what the Chinese do: Never cross the street alone, or even in pairs. Wait for a small group of local Chinese people who want to cross the street in the same direction you wish to go. Position yourself, if possible, in the middle of this pack of people. Watch for them to make their move and then go with them.

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