A Canadian In Beijing: Traffic is the Opposite of Uniform

Traffic wasn’t a word I truly understood until I came here to Beijing. Congestion isn’t just lanes full of cars on the road inching forward politely like I’ve experienced in Canada; it is a bunch of cars squeezing into the road, ignoring lane markings, edging each other out, honking their indignation, going forward despite the lack of room, etc. It’s like a giant game of chicken.

Okay, I’m a chicken. I admit it.

The fact that I’m writing this is proof that I’m alive (as is this picture I snapped in the taxi to prove that I was stupid enough to get in it!), but I would definitely attribute several new grey hairs to my journey from downtown to the university.

A few things I noticed about pecking order here on the roads of Beijing:

• The bigger you are, the more likely you are to get where you’re going
• No one really has the right-of-way (it should be re-phrased as might-of-way)
• Traffic lights are just a suggestion most of the time and green lights are extended in duration because red lights are perceived to be serious long after they’ve turned red
• Cars turning left or right weave around pedestrians and bicycles but don’t stop for them; we are like pylons in their obstacle course…

• Electronic bikes (with stinky two-stroke engines) are common and they motor forward without regard to pedestrians – it’s up to those on foot to hear them coming and step out of the way
• Bikes are allowed on the sidewalks, or I should say, they take over the sidewalks at will and so walking is perilous at best
• Honking is akin to stating that you’re serious about what you’re doing if you’re heading recklessly for an impossible lane or an opening half the size of your vehicle
• Honking is likewise akin to stating that you’re serious about not letting the other vehicle do what they’re apparently intending to do, which then becomes a battle of wills
• Honking is the sound of traffic in Beijing

After an excruciating half an hour on the road, the taxi dropped me off in a pile at the university in front of the wrong building. There I was with guitar, one big knapsack, a small duffle bag and my computer shoulder bag. I had to balance the bags around my body like a packhorse and I looked rather suspicious hobbling slowly towards the building I thought was the admissions office.

The suspicious Caucasian bag lady drew the attention of the security on campus.

Side note: there are boys in uniform here on every corner and I am beginning to grow accustomed to their presence. I haven’t yet distinguished which uniforms are which, but they are uniformly young and uniformly male. Often in stiff pairs but occasionally in group formation about four or five (nearly) men wide and twenty (nearly) men deep. These boys are the complete opposite of the roadways: organized, contained, deliberate.

It was a stiff pair that approached me on campus.

Two security guards (who appeared to be still too young to shave) approached me and asked what I was doing there. They had stern faces and officious tones. I told them I am a student here and they barked orders to see my admission notice (all in Chinese, of course.) I looked at them squarely for a long moment, put down everything on my body very slowly and methodically, dug out my admission notice and watched them acknowledge me for my rightful belonging.

As their aggressive energy waned, I smiled and asked them if they could kindly help me. They hesitated but agreed and then huffed and puffed my stuff from building to building, dutifully committed as I gathered my paperwork.

The massive lack of line-ups and chaotic crowds at all of these various university counters (admissions, finance office, accommodations, student card) is a reflection of what the roads look like in Beijing — complete mayhem. No order whatsoever. In the free for all, I needed to be pushy to get anywhere and I realized that fast. I edged my way in like everyone else and emerged with various paperwork stamped with official seals, armed with more proof that I belonged.

The boys in uniform were always waiting for me when I emerged. I think they wished that I had been less assertive so that they could take more time to rest at each post.

A Caucasian woman leading the way and two adolescent Chinese boys in uniform struggling behind must have been an odd sight. Just to paint the picture a little more clearly, I carried two of my four bags. One of the guards was scrawnier than me and the other was slightly chubby and baby-faced. Both perspired profusely in the spring sunshine and carried one bag each in the most awkward positions possible. They wrenched themselves to the left or to the right or attempted to carry the weight out in front of them to no avail.

There were several moments when they needed to stop and rest that were accompanied by much muttering to each other in Chinese I didn’t understand. I thanked them several times and smiled inwardly. The whole scenario was hilarious to me, but I knew if I had laughed that I might lose my sweaty cohorts and I couldn’t afford to lose either the help or the entertainment!

Comic relief after my near-death taxi experience.

I set the boys free at the accommodations office where my bags were in reach of my room. They disappeared before I could thank them one more time.

After that, I finally checked into my dorm room here at the Beijing Language and Culture University. This will be home for three months.