Any time we move into a new country, a part of us will change. We have to. We learn a new language (or at least pieces of one) or other tricks to enable communication. We learn cultural taboos and make sure we don’t commit them. We embrace the differences when we can. When we can’t embrace them, we endure them and try to be positive.
Perhaps the biggest culture shock in coming to China was not the language (having lived in Korea, I was accustomed to getting by with minimal language) or the air quality (I was prepared for the worst and ended up being pleasantly surprised).
The most difficult challenge was the seemingly flippant regard for others’ safety and well-being—mostly on the road. In a previous post, I discussed the morbid Chinese reaction to car-pedestrian accidents. You can read that here.
The driving culture in China is insane. While inside a vehicle, one’s cognizance of others simply disappears. Drivers do anything necessary to get from point A to point B, and they pay no attention to how their actions affect other drivers. Rude behavior becomes acceptable on the road—cutting off oncoming traffic at a green light to make a left turn, or parking a car in the street so they don’t have to walk the extra fifty feet from the empty spot they could have parked in, or leaving their car door wide open into the road as they sit in their car, only half-way pulled onto the shoulder, texting on their smart phone while traffic has to wait for oncoming cars before passing them.
Any foreigner who wishes to get a Chinese driver’s license must pass a very difficult test with at least a 90%. With the necessity of the test, it’s clear that there are indeed traffic laws here. But after about ten minutes on the road it’s also pretty clear that no one really follows them.
But, hey. I’m living in a new country, right? I should have expected differences. I anticipated needing to learn and change. Adapt I must.
And adapt I have. My means of transportation in Beijing is not a car, but a tuk-tuk. It might look like a mini-car, but I can assure you, it’s not. It has handle bars, not a steering wheel, and the gas is in the handle like a scooter. I couldn’t pass the driver’s test even if I tried, but after seeing the insane driving habits, I think I’d rather take a taxi anywhere that I don’t want to go in the tuk-tuk.
My husband spent about twenty hours studying for the test and managed to pass with a 91%, barely making the cut-off so that he can drive a car around Beijing. I can’t say that he has embraced the Chinese driving mentality, but he has managed to learn how to make his way through the busy intersections like the best Chinese taxi drivers I’ve seen.
I can also see my willingness to embrace Chinese driving culture when we’re stuck behind a car that is taking too long to make a turn and holding up a string of cars. The frustration and impatience bubbles out, “Go, car! Learn how to drive in China. Stop driving like a Westerner.” And I can see my grudging endurance of China’s road rules every time I see blatant displays of rudeness, then the impatience bubbles out in growls and complaints about the state of humanity—“Seriously? Really? I cannot believe people can be so freaking rude.”
My husband tells me I need to ride in the car with blinders on to keep my blood pressure normal while in a vehicle.
But surprisingly, one (of the many) difficult things for me to accept about the driving culture here has been a simple name of a road in the district of Beijing where I live.
Not far from my housing compound, there is a dike that runs along a canal. A road was built on top of the dike, and this narrow road is used as a shortcut for people who try to avoid a busy street with multiple lights where they might otherwise find themselves waiting in a traffic jam.
During the busy hours of the day, this shortcut is a very dangerous road, hence the name used by English speakers here—Dead-Ayi Road.
Perhaps that needs a bit more explanation.
Ayi roughly translates as “auntie” but ayi is also the word used to refer to domestic helpers. Having an ayi is very common here in China. It is so much more affordable to have domestic help here than back in the United States that most expats have an ayi working for them at least part-time. Even with the language barriers, ayis often become an important part of the family during an expat’s stay in China. This is a sweet story about one expat family and their ayi.
While China has a one-party authoritarian government that is communist in name, we all know that China isn’t very communist. Capitalism is raging in China, and there is huge disparity among the social classes. The wealthy Chinese drive expensive BMWs and Mercedes. The poorer Chinese drive scooters—often pedal bikes fitted with electric motors. They drive them in the summer and in the dead of winter when it is freezing, they drive them whether it’s rainy or sunny, smoggy or clear, daylight or dark.
The women who are hired to work as ayis are among the workers in China who cannot afford to buy a car, and they travel to and from work on a scooter.
At 8:00 am and 5:00 pm, when everyone is trying to get to and from work, there are chains of cars and trucks and tuk-tuks and scooters driving in both directions on that narrow road that has no shoulder or bike lane. Add to that the impatience of Chinese drivers and their insistence on passing tuk-tuks and scooters and other cars at inopportune moments, and it’s a death trap for those on the scooters.
When we first arrived in China, my husband told me that the road was called “Dead-Ayi Road”. Such a morbid name. I didn’t like it. I didn’t really want to call it that.
A couple weeks later, I was with an expat friend and wanted to know for myself. We were driving in her car and came to the intersection that led to that road and I asked, “Is it true that the road behind those trees is called ‘Dead-Ayi Road’?”
“Yes, it’s true,” she said, “but don’t call it that around an ayi. I have a friend who used that name when talking with her ayi and her ayi told her that she had had friends who died on that road and it was insensitive to call it that.”
“Do you know what else to call it?”
“I have no idea. That’s the only name I’ve heard for it.”
After that day, I did try to be sensitive. I didn’t want to use the name at all. Yet, the first time I tried to give directions to a friend, I found it impossible not to use it. The conversation went something like this:
Friend: Do you know where the English Tea House is?
Me: Yeah. It’s behind the BD flower market.
Friend: I don’t know where the flower market is.
Me: Well, you know that road that’s built up on a dike that runs along the canal?
Friend: Yeah. Dead-Ayi Road, right?
Me: Yes. But I don’t really like that name. It’s so morbid, it makes me cringe.”
Friend: I don’t know what else to call it.
Me: Me neither.
A long, uncomfortable pause.
Me: Well, you turn left on that road and go until you get to the first major intersection . . . .”
A couple days ago my family went to the park. My son might only be five, but he already likes to be a backseat driver. As my husband and I talked about whether we remembered exactly how to get there, my son piped up, “We need to find Dead-Ayi Road, Daddy. I remember from last time we went.”
All I could do was rest my forehead in my hand and sigh. My son. He said it like it was any other name. No big deal. It’s just a name. Just words.
No one else seems to have a problem with this name. It begs the question—am I overly sensitive? They are just words, right? Three little words that no one else seems bothered by at all. I’m in a new country, new culture, I need to adapt, right?
But I can’t help it. It still makes me cringe. And don’t know how long I’ll have to be in China before it doesn’t have that effect on me.
What about you? Have you ever experienced any names or labels that were cringe-worthy? Did you use them anyway? Did you avoid them? Am I over-reacting?