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Travel And Daily Life In Southwest China

When In China, Honk

Vicki and I have been traveling in southwest China’s Sichuan province for about a month. We’ve observed that whenever we’re outdoors, and sometimes when we’re indoors, someone is honking at us. We could be in a crosswalk with a green light in our favor. We could be on a sidewalk, in a park, on a footpath along the river, in a market, or in virtually any other public space. No matter. Someone will honk to move us out of the way.

In our first days here, all that honking got on my nerves. But I’ve come to realize that honking makes sense, That, in this part of the world, the system works.

For one thing, vehicles here confer status. In the Western world, when you buy a new car, you may feel superior. But in China when you buy a new car, you become superior. You’ve moved up the ladder. Pedestrians, by contrast, live on the lowest rung.

Guy buys a shiny new car, he naturally taps on his horn to remind the lower orders, that would be Vicki and me, to get out of the way. I sense very little impatience or anger, just a noisy insistence.

Then there’s common traffic honking, to caution other drivers, for example, or to make sure others know where you are. Consider that China has only modernized in the past 20 years or so. Most local drivers have been driving only a short time. Many learned to drive as adults, rather than in the formative years, and even today have little driving experience. So you’d expect rather more honking than less.

Next, consider delivery and logistics. In this part of China locals still set up wet markets, clothes markets, and bird and flower markets in parking lots, on bridges, in parks, on sidewalks, and any other public space. Goods have to get to market. If someone sells mattresses in a park, say, a truck necessarily has to drive through the park, honking the way clear, to get those mattresses to the right place. If someone sells clothes on a sidewalk, a motorcycle has to drive on the sidewalk to get the inventory to the table.

Remember, too, that over a billion people live in China. With so many of us walking and driving around, we’re naturally going to get in each other’s way. Honking goes a long way toward breaking up the congestion.

Often honkers ride motorcycles, rather than cars and trucks. Many motorcycles have quiet electric motors, meaning we can hear them only when they honk. Motorcycles routinely cruise down sidewalks, head the wrong way into busy streets, run red lights, drive into buildings, parks, and markets, and get around barriers meant to keep them out. I saw a traffic cop put up her flag to stop a motorcycle driver at an intersection. The driver simply ignored her and tried to cruise right through. Only when she literally stuck her flag in his face and glared at him did he finally stop.

Which brings me to a final point: We never see police around here, except part-time traffic wardens at intersections during rush hour. We see police stations, all right. Every neighborhood has its own police station. Yet we’ve never seen a cop issue a traffic citation, never seen any cops anywhere at all. I’m a bit puzzled as to why so many police stations and so few beat cops.

But I like living without beat cops. I figure cities with beat cops must be more dangerous than those without, else why would cities hire beat cops in the first place?

Come to China. Expect to be honked at. Stick around a while, and you’ll understand. Honking seems to make sense here.

Paul Terhorst

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