Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Don’t Stop!

We’ll address two topics under this title, and they both involve stopping: one of my favorite ongoing topics, traffic, and school kids. Believe me; you don’t want to get in the way of either one in China. Doing so can have unwanted consequences for you.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve been a passenger in a car only a handful of times, and I’ve driven nothing bigger than a shopping cart. Even that, I do seldom. In China, you just don’t shop the same way you do in America. Bulk buying is virtually unheard of, except maybe at Metro, Carrefour or WalMart. Usually, you don’t even need a shopping cart at a regular grocery store for the little you buy at a time. Shopping is done as needed: a bottle of soy sauce here, a pound of rice there, or going to the baker’s or butcher’s or the farmer’s market. It is kind of like shopping was done in the ‘50s and ‘60s in America. Quaint! Charming!

Even though I do not drive, I do still try to reason out the traffic situation. How does it manage to get so snarled? How does anybody get where they are going? How is it that there are not more accidents?

And then, it hit me: I have not seen a stop sign since I’ve been here. I have seen red lights and amber lights and standard traffic lights that are fully operational (and sometimes ignored). But, coming off the side streets onto the main roads, or at merging intersections, or for buses coming off designated bus lanes into mainstream traffic there is nothing to denote which vehicle has the right of way. No lights and no signs. There is nothing compelling traffic from anywhere to pause and look for oncoming traffic before they jump into the fray.

And they don’t. They just keep driving as though there is no oncoming traffic: no buses or cars, no pedestrians, no scooters, no ambling dogs and no human-powered pushcarts. I suppose everyone has to look out for merging traffic from side streets as they progress down the main roads. As a pedestrian, I certainly make it a point to check for cars or scooters coming off side roads before I cross those streets, even when I am in a crosswalk. You just never know.

One reason traffic does not get snarled is because of mandatory speed reductions school zones. There are at least two primary schools on the main road in front of the University, and countless others throughout the city. Five to six days a week these schools disgorge hordes of little ones, who take to the roads and buses with gleeful abandon. And, when I say little ones, I’m talking about five- and six-year olds, all the way up to tens and teens. There are no designated school zones where vehicles must slow to a crawl and there are no lines of school buses seeking safe passage onto main thoroughfares. There are no crosswalk monitors that insure these kiddies have priority crossing the road and only a relative few parents and grandparents wait at the school gates to see the children home.

I used to despair in America that, wherever there was a school – kindergarten through high school, that all vehicle traffic must slow down to twenty miles per hour. Crosswalk officers stop traffic whether pedestrians have a green light or not so the kids can cross and policemen are not shy at all about issuing tickets for speed offenders.

First off, I can understand such precautions for wee little ones, but shouldn’t older kids, at least high school kids be accountable for themselves? Especially if said high school kids are actually driving? Why must there be speed restrictions in front of high schools? And then: if a school of any grade range is on a side road, why does traffic on the main road have to slow down? Isn’t that overkill? What kind of message does that send the kids? “You do not have to be accountable for yourself and your safety because the whole world is being made to slow down for you.” Is that the best way to teach kids personal safety and accountability?

As a result of those traffic laws and the ensuing snarls and delays, when I lived in the States I would avoid being out between 2:00PM and 4:00PM. Of course, immediately after the school zones ended their asinine speed restrictions for the day, rush hour started: when everyone got off work at the same time and jumped into their individual vehicles and tried to get home. In short, going anywhere between the hours of 2PM and 7PM was too frustrating a venture for me when I lived in America.

Now I deal with traffic delays all of the time. But, I can manage these so much better because there is a logical reason for them. Mind you, I didn’t say sensible, I said logical. As in: the reason why traffic snarls so hopelessly here is definable. No one stops for anything, therefore everyone must stop for everything.

Due to a spate of attacks on school children in China last year, schools are more closely guarded and parents do try to be at the school gate when their little ones are released for the day. That means that there is a collection of adults standing outside school gates. They park their scooters haphazardly along the road because there is no room on or along the sidewalk. The result: traffic problems.

Because more adults are seeing their kids safely to and from school, buses are more crowded – parents who do not have scooters or cars ride the buses. The buses take longer to load and unload passengers, especially at popular stops – in front of schools and… the neighborhood where my university is at, for example.

I really don’t like being out while the school kids are making their way home. They are loud and rambunctious just as are kids all over the world. It is difficult to enjoy a bus ride when the kids are on board. They fight for and take up all of the seats. They squeal and fight and play and shout. They like poking fun at the foreigner, saying their “Hello’s” and trying out their English language skills, as well as testing out my Chinese skills. Although they are rather adorable, I would just as soon avoid the noise and having to stand on the bus all the way home.

However, I can’t help but admire these little ones – very little ones in some cases, who make their way home on mass transit or in the world by themselves. They navigate traffic and the bus system as well as any adult and they see themselves and each other safely home. They do not operate under the illusion that they have some sort of extra privilege because all traffic stops for them; they KNOW they have to be careful and watch out. They are held accountable for themselves and they take that accountability in stride. Short little strides, because their little legs cannot manage big, deep, adult strides.

They stride nonetheless, on their own. And they make it home every day, whether there are stop signs or not. Not bad, for a collection of little ones, no?

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