The “I” In Traffic

leighOn Friday, June 4, during a short bike ride through midtown Manhattan, a pedestrian walked straight into me while I was stopped a traffic light. He was composing a text message on his phone and not paying attention to where he was walking. The pedestrian tripped forward over my front wheel, fell onto a Park Ave. sidewalk and looked back at me, yelling, “Watch where you’re going asshole!”

I smiled and nodded at him, then pedaled away when the light turned green. Normally, I would’ve verbally retaliated with something along the lines of “You walked into me. Why don’t you pay attention to where you’re walking?” But things were different now. I had just returned from a week long excursion in Shanghai, China, and I had learned not to take my position on the road personally.

Shanghai’s streets are overrun with a mix of speeding cars, trucks, buses, bicycles, scooter, pedi-cabs, rickshaws and pedestrians. Traffic lights aren’t necessarily obeyed, obsessive honking isn’t unusual, and spotting a bike with a payload of a refrigerator and an oven on the back is more common than finding a restaurant with dog meat on the menu. Entering into a deluge of vehicles on an overcrowded Shanghai street, is, at first glance, an unspoken entrance into mass chaos. But within that chaos exists order; one just needs to not search too deep for it.

For starters, you need to change the way you view your self, or better yet, completely stop. Because less emphasis is placed on the individual in traditional Chinese culture, the rules of the road reflect a more communal approach to life, aspiring to a sort of harmonious interdependence. It is not “You versus the rest of the people on the road.” It is “You and the rest of the people on the road.” Nor is it, “Get out of my way so I can get to my destination.” It is, “Let’s keep this thing going so we can all get where we need to go.” The ramifications of this approach of getting from point A to point B manifests itself in many ways. But perhaps the most important (and my favorite) aspect of this approach is the lack of anger and aggression on the road. (A by-product of no selfishness.)

So on a random Shanghai street, with all manners of vehicles noisily buzzing to and from their destinations with little regard for Westernized traffic rules, it’s important to remember to not internalize your fellow driver’s actions as personal attacks on the self. This is all of us just doing what we can to get from one point to another, together. And that’s why I didn’t get angry at the pedestrian calling me an asshole, back at home in New York.