Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock: Red Light, Green Light (The Asphalt Hierarchy)


Is he still following us?

Drive. Or walk. Or cycle. Fight your way.

“Well, when I lived in Asia…” begin so many of my sentences these days. Moving away is hard, and as it turns out, so is moving back. Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock is a series devoted to these difficulties, and is also an outlet so that I don’t become That Guy Who Won’t Shut Up About Korea to all of his friends.

The road is a warzone, a constant battleground where every car, every bus, every streetcar and pedestrian and bicycle is a guerrilla commando. In each of their hands is their own life and the well-being and punctuality of everyone else, and people are happy to play fast and loose with both. How this war plays out differs based on location in time and space, differs based on local hierarchies of importance and cherished modes of transport.

As a kid growing up in Toronto, I grew accustomed to a certain sense of ownership, of visceral claim, upon the road. No matter my conveyance, I was always in the right. As a passenger or driver in a car, everyone else on the road was an idiot just waiting to be plowed into by everyone else in an enormous, catastrophic explosion of stupidity and organ-meat. In the back of a bus, forced to share breathing-space with the armpit stank of dozens of strangers who hate sharing seats, I felt like it was our right to burst through traffic, and sneak through lights, and be as overbearing as possible. On foot, smarmy in my commitment to being green, I was imbued with a sense of immortality, a knowledge that the laws of man and the road did not apply to me, and that every opportunity to jaywalk was as natural a human right as life and liberty and frozen yogurt.

Torontonians are opportunistic jaywalkers by nature, and will often seize upon the chance only if the danger is at a perceptibly manageable rate, and if no police are present. Once jaywalking is in progress, incursions into the path of said walker are treated as personal assaults, as forcing them to stay in the roadway and in the path of physical danger for longer. When you are not already in the road, the car is king, and every driver is fuelled by ongoing and jingoistic rhetoric about the growing War on the Car.

This was just how the road was, the very basic rhythm of the universe. Bus, car, bike and foot. All were against one another, all equal entities in one grand opera of transport (except maybe cyclists, who everyone would team up to kill or inconvenience).

My first exposure towards alternative traffic orientations was in Dublin, Ireland. I was in the world for the first time on my own, left to my devices, free to explore and to absorb different countries. I was wide-eyed, I was scared. My hands trembled, and every footstep was tentative, shaky, the jittery first gambols of a newborn fawn. There was food and drink and culture and people, and there was also so much road. And the road is unforgiving.

Once, while strolling alongside a park, we decided to head for lunch and looked for the nearest pedestrian crossing. We were astride a four-lane road that hummed with traffic, and as we began walking towards the intersection to cross, a young mother shoved her enormous, tank-like baby carriage directly into oncoming traffic. A Toyota slammed to a halt inches from her, having not expected someone to just suddenly leap his path.

The delicate Dublinite mother, shocked by this turn of events, raised a dainty, porcelain finger to her brow. She looked around for a fainting couch, perhaps some large burly gentleman in a tophat and waistcoat who could speak sense to the scoundrel in the automobile. In the serene, delicate brogue of her people, she called out a shocked, plaintive song: “OI WHAT THE FUCK YOU DOING YOU SILLY CUNT I GOT A FOOKIN’ BABY HERE!”

This was only the first. During my time in Dublin, I saw four separate babies being hurtled directly onto the road, a kind of canary in the traffic mines. Each time, cars and trucks and vehicles came to brutal stops inches from tiny, fragile humans, and during the ensuing altercations, it was always indicated that the drivers were in the wrong, and that they were stupid, and also several untoward things about their ancestry and mothers.

We were in pedestrian country, and all drivers were subject to the angry, shouty whims of the walking public. It was a heady, strange experience, this freedom to surge onto the asphalt at my convenience. Drivers and cyclists would bend to my will, and traffic lights were more of a gentle suggestion mumbled gently at my already moving feet. Running shoes were king, and all had to bow before their might.

Later on my Eurotrip, having developed a firm sense of myself as a walker, I felt certain I could handle new traffic patterns with careful, efficient elan. I happily stumbled into roadways and intersections on red lights, Corollas and Fords swerving from my glorious path. And then I arrived in Amsterdam, where the be-bicycled populace would angrily ring their bells and run you into the canals if you ever thought of taking a step before a bike.

In Korea, the will of any driver is paramount. Pedestrians and cyclists a lower than scum, and deserve to be smashed to pulpy smithereens if they trespass upon the holy, sanctified surface of the road. Regularly I would have to pull back my students as cars would attempt to mow them down through red lights across the street from our school, and even on sidewalks I would have to regularly check my surroundings to make sure I was not going to be flattened by someone looking for a parking space, or a delivery man on a moped looking for a shortcut through a bank. To this day I still jolt from my dreams of walking around in Korea, so visceral is my need to leap from those roadways, even in my unconscious mind.

In Vietnam, the scooter claims all streets and alleys, forming one great, revving, oily ocean of tires and exhaust. All other contenders wade into the fray and must hope they can swim against the tide. In India, the rickshaw is king, and can zip in and out of any tight spot and also through red lights and around cars and into personal homes, and is only surpassed by the cow, who can do just about anything she pleases and not be disturbed, and can grind and entire highway to a halt if she particularly feels like napping on it.

Now when I am confronted by my home roads, by the asphalt of my forefathers, I am left adrift. I’ve been away so long, I have no sense of the regulations, of the local valuation of transport methodologies. Can I jaywalk? Can I cross? Will I be mowed down by rickshaw or scooter or Kia or 18-wheeler or rampaging bull? Where can I go, and how can I get there without dying? Who rules these roads?

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8 thoughts on “Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock: Red Light, Green Light (The Asphalt Hierarchy)

  1. I find that in Australia, you can jaywalk, but it’s the responsibility of the walker to weave and speed up if a car comes along. It was such a shock in India to take a deep breath and jump into the traffic.

  2. It is so incredibly interesting when you think about the different road rules in different countries; even different cities within the same country, and occasionally different neighborhoods within the same city. In my current hometown of Washington, DC, I’d say that pedestrians fight drivers and everyone fights bikes.

    While on a mission trip to Honduras, our group of 25 Americans rented 5 small Toyota trucks as transportation. Driving down there sounds much like driving in India does – it’s a sport, and the lives of you, your passengers, and your fellow drivers mean little if passing a slow bus on a blind curve gets you a few kilometers ahead. Red lights are suggestions and lanes are nonexistent. However, one day we found ourselves in the “wealthy” district of the capital city, Tegucigalpa. There was a shopping mall, gated housing communities, and a TGIFridays. And suddenly, miraculously, driving became civilized again. It was just like being back in America. There were lanes and crosswalks and traffic rules that were actually followed. But as soon as you crossed back into the rest of the city, it was every man for himself. I’m curious if you noticed anything like this during your travels in Asia, where one district of the city suddenly followed drastically different rules of the road?

    • I can’t really comment too much in regards to fancier parts of the countries I’ve visited, because generally I don’t have the money to go anywhere near the fancy parts.

      I guess maybe I can speak a little bit towards Korea. In, say, Gangnam, I didn’t really notice any particular change in how people were driving or interacting with other parties in the road, other than some fancier cars and lots more traffic. I think maybe there’s a little bit more urban consistency across much of the Seoul metropolitan area (including back into my city, Incheon), although I did note that the Seoul cabs were generally far crabbier than anywhere else in the country.

  3. in LA, it would be hazardous to walk without the crosswalk signal. You do that at your own risk. And I will wait (even if the street is completely deserted at night) for that little walking-guy signal. In LA: “when in doubt, don’t walk. When not in doubt, don’t walk.”

    Vietnam, on the other hand, lawdy, that was scary.

    • Walking into traffic in Vietnam was a pure act of faith, but after you got used to trusting in the driving abilities of so many strangers, it got easier. The advice I got before I visited was that you had to maintain your pace, no matter what: speeding up or slowing down makes you hard to predict, and makes you more likely to get mowed down by a vespa.

  4. Crossing the street in Mongolia is like playing a lifelong game of frogger. Cross one lane at a time, as early as you can; if you wait for a clear path across, you will never get anywhere. Stoplights are typically obeyed, but as there are all of two in my city, this isn’t particularly helpful for the pedestrian. Virtually all drivers are also accustomed to countryside driving, where the primary obstruction is usually livestock that skedaddles at the sound of a horn – and so their primary response to any sort of obstruction is to lay on the horn, whether or not the driver in front of them is capable of getting out of the way. The maneuvers people attempt at intersections in the capital are also terrifying: turning across lanes, attempting to weave through the spaces in the resulting mess at the same time as other drivers with the same intent. Nothing you haven’t seen elsewhere on this continent, I’m sure, but certainly a shock to my system when I first arrived.

    • That sounds magical. Korea had its own particular style of traffic, so I wasn’t really accustomed to this particular format probably under some parts of south-east Asia, and then really really in India. It’s amazing how you grow accustomed to taking your life in your hands.

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