2009.04.15 Honking through China

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

Every now and then I reach down into a pile of unread or partially-read magazines for some good bed-time reading.

It’s the New Yorker magazine that poses the great problem. Too much good stuff to read and it just keeps arriving every week, as it should.

They pile up in places where they shouldn’t and then guests are coming and the New Yorkers are shoved into a bag and stashed somewhere else out of the way.

No, the house isn’t overrun by the magazine. I manage to thin out quite a few from time to time, either by reading through the index and chucking them into the recycling pile, or by reading the thing.

Last week I reached into the bag that I knew resided under my bed and I pulled out a gem. Nov. 26, 2007. I didn’t care about the political story (“Can Obama catch Hillary?), but a story called ”The Patron” was really quite fascinating.

It’s about a man named Orlando Tobón, a Columbian living in Queens, NYC, and is described as the go-to man in the Little Columbia neighborhood of Jackson Heights.

When new arrivals have problems, Orlando helps them out—citizenship problems, identity theft, the need for a wheelchair, arranging for the return of a body to Columbia following the deadly job as a drug mule.

It’s the next article in that issue that I want to write about: Peter Hessler’s account of driving in China, “Wheels of Fortune, the People’s Republic Learns to Drive.”

When Hessler wrote the story, an average of a thousand new drivers were being registered in Beijing alone every day of the year. The automotive boom was in full swing.

I read that car sales slowed some last year, but it’s back on a record pace. Auto sales in China exceeded U.S. sales for the first time ever in January and that feat was repeated in February and March.

Fortunately for General Motors, it’s part of that growth and recorded record sales in China last month.

As of 2007, China had a lot of catching up to do. There were about 28 automobiles for every thousand people. That equates to the United States in 1915.

When Hessler got his Chinese driver’s license in 2001, foreigners were still required to a take a road test. The testing road was cleared of all traffic. Hessler was told to start the car, move forward, and after about 50 yards, to pull over and stop the car. It was over.

“You’re a very good driver,” the examiner told him.

That gives a hint about what Chinese drivers are like. A few years ago China accounted for about three percent of the world’s vehicles and 21 percent of its traffic fatalities. There were 89,000 deaths in 2006.

Hessler explains that China has moved so fast from a pedestrian society to an automotive one, that people tend to drive as they walk.

They like to move in packs, and they tailgate whenever possible. They rarely use turn signals. If they miss an exit on a highway, they simply pull onto the shoulder, shift into reverse, and get it right the second time.

Drivers rarely check their review mirrors. Windshield wipers are considered a distraction, and so are headlights.

Headlights were banned in Beijing for many years until the mayor visited New York City and noticed that people turned them on at night.

Here’s a question from the written exam study guide:

77. When overtaking another car, a driver should pass

(a) on the left.

(b) on the right.

(c) wherever, depending on the situation.

He mentions that many answers involve honking. Drivers honk continually and he’s been able to determine 10 distinct meanings, from anger to fear. It’s like learning a new language.

353. When passing an elderly person or a child, you should

(a) slow down and make sure you pass safely.

(b) continue at the same speed.

(c) honk the horn to tell them to watch out.

355. When driving through a residential area, you should

(a) honk like normal.

(b) honk more than normal, in order to alert residents.

(c) avoid honking.

Hessler heard of a certified driving instructor who forced students to start in second gear. First gear would make them lazy. Another forbade the use of turn signals because they would distract other drivers.

Hessler’s wife signed up for lessons to learn the use of a stick shift. Her teacher sat in the passenger seat and adjusted the rearview mirror to face him. His wife asked how she was going to see what was behind her.

“I’ll tell you what’s behind you,” he answered.

Hessler rode with some students one day and the class stopped for lunch and had a few beers. One student told him they got so drunk the day before that the afternoon class had to be canceled.

Other foreigners in Beijing often express dismay that Hessler actually chooses to drive on China’s roads. Hessler believes he’s making the right choice.

“I can’t believe you get into cabs and buses driven by graduates of Chinese driving courses,” he answers.

They’re all crazy on those roads, but he prefers to sit behind the wheel.

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