Driving in other countries can be quite an exposure to culture. I find it can provide quite a bit of insight. A while ago I had an opportunity to see how it was to drive in and around Beijing, China. Actually I didn’t do any of the driving. I cannot read enough Chinese to understand the road signs nor did I have much of an idea how to get anywhere. So I had the opportunity to observe the drivers and how they conducted themselves.
It was hard to believe that just five years earlier cars and drivers were a rarity in China. Early in 2000 I was flying back from a business event in Florida and met several Chinese colleagues that were part of a business partnership my company had established with China. They were coming to the United States to learn the logistics process. After some conversations I shared my business card with them and also provided my home number in case they needed some help during their nine day visit.
I didn’t see them all that week. I knew their time over here was coming to a close and wondering if they would contact me at all. Then on the last day of their last weekend I received a phone call from them while I was working in my garage. They wanted to know about any outlet malls in the area. I mentioned a couple close by and they said that they had already shopped them. So I suggested one large outlet plaza about 45 minutes away. There was a long pause which I interpreted to mean that they were no sure of how to get there. So I offered to meet them at their hotel and let them follow me in their rental. They thanked me and I headed over to meet them.
When I arrived at the hotel I found four of them waiting in the lobby. It quickly became clear that none of them had a car because none of them could drive. So I offered to take them in my car. It was a tight fit but they loved having a ride in a red sports car and later had their photos taken next to it.
Just a few short years later and cars were common in China and so were drivers.
There were long lines to get through customs which was indicative that China has become a primary business destination. I had a multiple entry visa which meant there was no problem clearing customs, so off I went to find a taxi. It took an hour and a half to get to the hotel which was located between the fifth and sixth traffic rings that radiated around Beijing proper.
The driving habits were disconcerting for someone like me that is a performance driving enthusiast. Every vehicle was a manual shift and the drivers rarely exceeded two thousand rpm. Lane discipline was practically non-existent. While they recognized the lanes they interpreted their use liberally. Bicycle and pedestrian lanes were fair game if it presented an opportunity to pass slower traffic. Horns were used often. Not to accuse or reprimand, but to inform the other driver of your proximity. If this behavior had been attempted back home it would have resulted in a violent reaction, but here it was an accepted necessity. On the local streets where a right or left turn had to take place it was done without the abruptness you would see in Boston traffic, but there would be a wordless negotiation for the right of way between pedestrians, bicyclists, and vehicular traffic. There was the persistent use of the horn to inform others of your presence and intentions. I only saw a couple of accidents in the ten days I was over there.
The taxi ride from the airport varied from 150 to 100 Yuan. That was the equivalent of $13-20. There were gypsy taxi drivers that would take advantage of first-time foreigners and charge 400 to 600 Yuan. You would use a piece of paper with the name and address of the hotel, for example, to let the drive know where you needed to go.
The first week in Beijing the weather was hot and humid. Temperatures of one hundred degrees persisted and air conditioning was appreciated. Some taxis had air conditioning and some did not. There were legitimate taxis with meters and gypsy taxis that did not. Many of the legitimate taxis were being replaced with new models in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics. The taxi drivers were issued phrase bookletsso they could practice their English.
On my last day in China, four of us went to the Silk Market in the morning and loaded up on some electronics bargains. Then we took a taxi back to the hotel where I picked up my bags and took another taxi to the airport. I spent the ride looking over the city and surroundings. There were the vast quantities of advertising signs that I could not read, the construction cranes, some of the thirty million people of Beijing. They were walking, riding bikes, motorcycles, cars, trucks, vans. They were taking their country into the twenty-first century with them.
It was fascinating to get intimate with this very interesting country that is full of ccontrasts. It has a Communist political system that embraced capitalism with a vengeance. There were automobiles and motor vehicles everywhere, but there were also horses and donkeys as you drove to the outer rings. Cell phones were everywhere as well. You could count on having five bars of signal strength, even while walking on the great wall. I watched television (when I woke up at two in the morning – my inner clock still confused) and scanned the Chinese channels where it didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand the language, most of the shows were easy to follow as they had much the same formats we are used to. The only thing lacking was reality shows (thank goodness).
They are enthusiastic about joining the world of capitalism and taking up the business language of English. I used room service one night and the young man who brought up my food was interested not only to find out where I was from, but to use his English as much as possible.
China is a very interesting country. It is a country that we should respect, but not fear. We have been preaching the benefits of capitalism for decades, if not centuries, and now that China (and other countries) has adopted the capitalist culture we should honk our horns, not to accuse or reprimand, but to inform.