Friday, February 25, 2011

Orderly Chaos

My good friend and verbal sparring partner Kevin asked me a question: “Do you miss the organization of the good ol’U.S.of A. yet?”

Sometimes I get the best blog ideas from questions my friends ask!

He was referring to the 17-hour train ride I had to get back from Xi’an, when people were standing in the aisles and banging into me and where getting up and moving around was impossible. To tell you the truth, Kevin, I had to get on a bus and go into town and see/feel/experience being here objectively before I could write about it. And even now, I have trouble formulating an answer.

I think it is because I equate the organization and orderly, civilized flow of humanity down the street, into the buses and on the freeways with being quintessentially American. If I were to say that I miss that, it would imply that I somehow feel like the experience of living here is lacking somehow.

In America, you would not see a group of pedestrians challenge oncoming vehicles for their right to cross the street. There is almost a docility to pedestrians in America that does not exist in Chinese pedestrians. Likewise, you would not find a bicycle that ties up traffic, a pushcart laden with coal setting the pace for a column of cars or a three wheeled tractor on a major highway. In short, it would seem to me that, comparing American circumstances to Chinese ones would be like comparing apples to oranges.

But, that wasn’t the question. The question was: do I MISS the organization of life in the United States?

In a rather eerie visual, I conjure up that video to the song by Pink Floyd, wherein identically clad students with waxen faces chant “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control” as they shuffle in lockstep off a plank and into a steaming barrel, where they presumably melt. At first thought, it would seem that that visual would apply better to communist China, where things are supposed to be regimented down to the last detail. Instead, I see it as a reflection of American life.

Everyone obeys traffic laws in America: rigorously maintained lines of vehicles going down the road with a set amount of space between them and following a certain speed limit. Here, there don’t seem to be any laws with regard to traffic. Sometimes there aren’t even any lanes on the road. Cars just go wherever there is room for them. Pretty much everybody respects each other’s personal space in America: there is no crowding, pushing or shoving. At least not as a part of daily life. Here, pushing and shoving IS a part of daily life. Just try getting on a bus nicely! Just try walking down the street, crowded with vendors and flowing with pedestrians! There must be pushing, shoving and invasion of personal space in order to get anywhere here.

But, do I miss the order and organization of America, after being pushed and shoved all day (and doing my fair share of pushing and shoving)?

To miss what I had in America means that I am not fully appreciative of what there is here.

Life is colorful here. There is dialog and drama and comedy, all rolled into one noisy film. Just looking out a bus window is better entertainment than anything you could find on TV or in the movie house. When I travel the streets of Wuhan, I usually do it with two sets of eyes: yours and mine. My eyes have started taking things in as par for the course and I have accepted the way of life here. But your eyes are still awed and amused at the spectacle that is life in China. There is wonder as you see street vendor carts jockeying for the best position on the sidewalk while the beat policeman tells him he cannot set his cart up that close to the intersection, so as to not interfere with pedestrian traffic flow.

You shake your head in disbelief as hopelessly snarled traffic inches its way along. And this is traffic from all directions at once at one intersection, unlike traffic snarls in America, where everyone is maintaining their lane of traffic and there is a bottleneck up ahead. If you were to witness some of the traffic here, where buses get so close to other buses that the passengers from each bus could reach out and shake hands, I daresay you would not venture out of your hotel (or whatever living quarters you maintain while here) for fear of being trapped in such an impossible tangle.

But, look closely. Nobody is yelling at anyone. No one is getting out of their car, pounding on anyone’s hood or calling anyone crazy. Everyone just accepts that the traffic situation is bad, but they’ll get to go eventually.

There is a tolerance to circumstances here that simply doesn’t exist in America, at least not to my knowledge. I can still remember being impatient, arrogant, losing my temper and raising my blood pressure at being stuck in traffic. I can remember surface streets and highway access roads filling up with cars wishing to avoid the bottleneck on the highway. I still read reports of people falling victim to road rage and being gunned down because they had a better traffic advantage and someone wanted it for themselves. None of that exists here.

Just recently I was on the bus, sitting up front, close to the driver. And, as usually happens, there was a traffic snarl. The bus positioned itself for eventual maximum advantage for when traffic started moving again, thereby cutting off a scooter’s access to the road. The scooter driver did not pound on the bus or yell at the driver. Instead, they engaged in a mute conversation. The scooter driver stared at the bus driver, who was in fact in the wrong because he was occupying an oncoming lane of traffic as well as his own lane. The bus driver, without saying a word or making any type of gesture to the scooter driver, cranked his wheels the other way and inched forward as far as possible, so that the scooter driver could get past him.

Comparing that to the orderliness of people shouting at traffic bottlenecks and road rage, I’d have to say that I prefer the colorful chaos of China to the meticulous order of America.

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