Crossing over to the other side is usually a term that refers to dying, to seeing the bright white light at the other end of the proverbial tunnel. In Beijing it may just as well refer to crossing over to the other side of the street, a procedure that may lead the unwary pedestrian to seeing that celestial white light sooner than they expected. In China there is no right-of-way for pedestrians. In fact, there were times when I thought that the cars were purposefully aiming for me.
Beijing isn’t like the chaotic streets of Rome where the little old ladies purposefully stride across the street, knowing that the Fiats and Alfas will swirl around them like they are so many rocks in a river. This was pure street mayhem, as if an undeclared war had been called on pedestrians and we were the last to know. If I could read lips in Mandarin I would have sworn that one truck driver looked me in the eyes and uttered, “Make my day.” No lip-reading was necessary for my response.
It reminded me of a late ‘70s video arcade game called Death Race. It was one of the first games of the post-Pong Era so it was still pretty rudimentary; basically a steering wheel and gas pedal attached to a black-and-white video monitor. After you plunked in your quarter, stick figures ran erratically across the screen. The player’s goal was to run over as many as possible. After impact a tombstone would pop up to represent points earned.
It was probably not a good game for me to be playing while I was still learning how to drive but I really enjoyed it. (C’mon, I was a male teenager, my brain wasn’t fully developed yet, if ever.) Larissa, being a bit more subtle than me, compared it to being in a real-life version of Frogger.
To cross a street in Beijing is to known firsthand how those stick figures felt. We were now the target and we didn’t like it very much. Like most cities, Beijing thoughtfully provides pedestrian crossing signs that show either a green man or a red man. I’m not sure why they bother because they are extremely misleading. Crossing on the green is no guarantee of any level of safety, in fact it just lulls the walker into a false sense of security.
Having a green crossing signal does not stop the cars that go right on red without slowing down, or the mopeds, bikes and motorized rickshaws that drive on the road (and sidewalk) in the opposite direction of traffic and for some reason can ignore all traffic signals. You don’t see them coming until it is often too late and your toes end up paying the price. And don’t get me started on the buses that play by their own set of rules.
To be more accurate, the pedestrian crossing sign should just flash a continuous red man and skip the green guy altogether. At least then pedestrians will know where they stand and will exercise extreme caution at all times.
We finally realized that we had to travel in packs, like the herds of gazelles we’d seen on the Discovery Channel who do so to avoid being eaten by lions. We didn’t want to be the weak gazelle who couldn’t keep up with the pack and was left behind to become the lions’ dinner. We’d find a group of strangers that was waiting to cross the street and then latch on to them. As we crossed we’d remind each other, “Don’t be the weak gazelle!” It must have worked since I’m now sitting here writing this.
So if you ever find yourself crossing the street in Beijing just remember two things: travel in packs and ignore the green man. Your life could depend on it.
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