A foreigner in Shanghai makes a stand against traffic. Is he a hero or an asshole?
I was walking down a narrow street in Shanghai that shot off to the south of Wuyi Road. It was the morning rush hour and the diminutive street was jammed with pedestrians, bicyclers, street cart vendors, ebikes, and, of course, cars. While this legally was a motorable road, its small gauge combined with the congestion made it extremely difficult for the cars to pass — though they did so with blaring horns and abandon.
When the cars would come everybody else had to stop and move off to the side, pressing themselves up against the walls, fences, and junk that hugged the roadside, so they could pass. After having this happen a half dozen times within a 100 meters even I was growing weary of the four wheeled brutes. I’ve been in China for years, the petty irritations of daily life here often no longer register, but there was something about being run down multiple times in a virtual alley by honking meatheads on the prowl for a shortcut made my teeth grind.
As happenstance would have it, I ended up walking down this street twice, but the second time a hero emerged. The gallant being was a six foot tall Caucasian wearing a ushanka hat made of fur, like they wear in Russia, and a trench coat. I watched as he stopped forward progress in the middle of the street, standing in front of a row of cars that could not go around him, and refused to move. He just stood there, looking straight ahead, seemingly impervious to the mass of activity that he personally drew to a halt. When the cars behind him began honking he calmly reached into his pocket, produced a set earplugs, inserted them into his ears, and continued standing with Zen stillness in the middle of the street.
Responding to the conflict, a local street vendor approached the hero and asked him to please step out of the way so the oncoming traffic could pass. As is normal in China, one person responding to something provoked a crowd to form. The hero laowai was quickly surrounded. The Chinese were asking him what he was doing, telling him to get out of the road, pointing out that the cars needed to pass, that he really should move. The laowai stood his ground. He gave them all the stone face and continued his one man vigil against the injustices of Shanghai’s traffic and the irritations of daily life in China.
The cars were by now backed up all the way down the street, but the laowai stood on. Minutes passed. Eventually, the street vendor began yelling at him to get out of the way, and our hero eventually broke down. With a huff and a grunt he began belting out made up Chinese sounding noises, mocking the street vendor. Our bold hero had obviously never bothered to learn a word of Mandarin, but he did manage to call the street vendor an “asshole” in perfectly accentuated American English.
I tried to rationalize the scene I had just watched. “Bad China days” are an occasional phenomenon for just about every foreigner here, and those breaking down and throwing hissy fits in public are not uncommon. But to intentionally block an entire street and then mock and insult the people who point out that you’re out of line is perhaps something different entirely. Yes, the street was crowded. Yes, it was irritating to have cars driving down it honking for everyone to get out of the way. But this is China and this is normal here. This guy, apparently, was making a stand.
“When in a village follow its customs” is the Chinese equivalent of “When in Rome.” But what happens when you’ve been in that village for so long that it becomes your home? At what point do you earn the right to stand in the middle of a road trying to change the tides of a culture? It is estimated that there are around a million foreigners living in China. Many of which have been here for many years — decades even — and some are in their second generation. This is a mass that’s marginalized to the fringes of the society, that’s generally seen as being impermanent and not justified to leave its imprint upon the ground.
Though “hero laowai” reacting against what they deem inappropriate Chinese traffic behavior is something we’ve seen before, and is something we may see more of as the foreign community in China begins asserting itself more and more. A foreigner in Beijing recently got a lot of positive press for blockading the path of a car trying to drive down a bike lane, and, as has been previously reported, “In June 2012, an expat in Chengdu blocked others cars at an intersection in order to allow an ambulance to get through. In April 2011, an expat in Guangzhou blocked a car that was driving the wrong way down a road.”
Perhaps our hero in Shanghai was attempting to replicate these much publicized deeds. Whatever was the case, the only thing he accomplished was reaffirming the stereotype that foreigners in China are linguistically inept, culturally misplaced, and bewildered by the “Chinese way” — Unsavory Elements standing in the middle of the road, clogging up the works.
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