When I went home to the United States last summer, I couldn’t wait to drive. I don’t own a car in Beijing, and it had been more than a year since I’d been behind the wheel.
I missed that free feeling of an open highway, stereo up and windows down, the smells of summer whipping your face on a moonlit drive through the country. I missed the ability to go anywhere I wanted, at any time of the day, without having to hail a taxi or cram into a subway full of sweaty young men with no sense of personal space.
But I didn’t miss paying for gas, monthly insurance bills or buying expensive new parts like brakes, tires and radiators. Cars are money suckers, and most begin to depreciate the moment you drive off the lot.
Once I slept off the jet lag of a 20-hour trek from Beijing to Louisville, Kentucky, I grabbed the keys to my 1996 Toyota Avalon and went for a drive with my brother Billy. After I adjusted the seat and rear view mirror, it was a lot like getting back on a bike after not riding for several years. All the driving maneuvers and traffic rules I was taught as a teenager came rushing back. Well, most of them.
While driving through an intersection close to my old high school, a young woman pushing a baby stroller entered a crosswalk and walked into the path of my car. I ignored her and sped through it, coming within inches of the stroller.
The woman froze in horror. “Were you trying to kill her?” my brother asked.
The thought that she would expect me to yield never entered my mind. In Beijing, it’s the other way around. Pedestrians, even the ones pushing strollers, yield for cars. It’s the law of the jungle, and the double-long Beijing buses are king!
As a good friend who has lived in China for many years told me, “Traffic rules here are merely suggestions.” Obeying red lights, double yellow lines, speed limits: it’s all optional. I once saw a driver on a busy three-lane interstate stop and back up in the middle of the highway because he had missed an exit.
Some cab drivers seem to enjoy the Wild West nature of the roads. Last winter, after a night out with friends in one of Beijing’s oldest neighborhoods, I stumbled into a taxi in a narrow alley. “Huixin Dongjie,” I said, giving him the name of the street where I lived.
A lit cigarette dangled from the driver’s mouth, and trance music blared from the speakers in the backseat. “O.K. ba!,” he said. Like a horse shooting out of the gate at the Kentucky Derby, he raced down the alley, paying no regard to the fruit vendors jumping out of the way. He laughed with every near miss, as if he was in a video game earning extra points for close calls.
After a while, these experiences become less shocking. They almost seem normal because it’s what you see every day.
In two months, I’ll be going home again. If I were my brother, I’d start shopping for a helmet.