Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Musings: The Chinese driver's best friend - the horn

Honking at cyclists is another popular pastime for drivers. In America, horn toots usually convey a driver's anger or annoyance. Motorists might think you're taking up too much space or riding like an idiot so they'll honk at you. If they respect your right to be on the road with them, they'll give you some room and pass by quietly.

But in China, a honk usually just means, "I'm about to pass you so don't do a blind U-turn into my path." It's a good example of a fundamental difference in how Americans and Chinese approach driving.

Americans and Europeans think in terms of "lanes." Or "flight paths" for planes. Or "lines" for bikes. We've grown up in fast-moving vehicles that require plenty of space to operate. Drivers own the lane space in front of them, and others who want to enter the lane must first check to see if there's enough space. In the same way, a bike rider owns his line and is expected to hold it.
The Chinese don't seem to think in terms of lanes. They drive as if they're surrounded by a space bubble or a force field that's about five feet thick. If they decide to turn or merge, it's up to other drivers to notice them and stay out of their space bubble. Chinese motorists don't do much shoulder checking. They ride their bikes the same way. If they want to join a pace line, they won’t start in the back. They’ll just try to merge their way into the middle of it. You’ve got to make room for them.

I can't count how many times I've had to swerve or yell at drivers, pedestrians and cyclists who were blindly merging into my lane like Mr. Magoo. I recently T-boned a migrant worker who tried to zip across an intersection without checking for ongoing traffic. Neither of us was seriously injured, but I badly bruised my hip and wrist as I hit the road hard and bounced for a few feet.

Chinese drivers cope with this unpredictability by honking at anything that might turn into their path. Few people seem to get annoyed by the cacophony of car horns. It bugs the hell out of me. I'll never get used to it.

Sometimes, drivers seem to just be beeping to say hello to the weird cycling foreigner in spandex. Once while I was barreling through a tunnel, a cement truck rumbled up on my back wheel and the driver started tooting his horn at me. The sound was deafening as it echoed off the tunnel's walls. As I cleared the tunnel, the truck pulled up alongside of me. Just as I was about ask the driver what the hell his problem was, I saw him and another guy bouncing around in the cab, laughing and yelling the common Chinese cheer at me: "Jia you!" or "Add oil!" At sporting events, the Chinese don’t yell “Go!” or “Come on!,” they scream, “Add oil!”

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