Monday, October 3, 2011

Driving in China

After hundred of times driving in China, I finally succumbed to the experience of a collision. Well, sort of. Returning from IKEA, I was leisurely driving straight on a rather quiet street, passing a bicyclist at around 15mph (25kmph or so). As I passed him he swerved rather dramatically leftward and thudded into the side of the car. Before continuing, I must say I have a lot of experience driving both in China and the US, and am very acculturated to the driving customs in China and have never had a single incident despite sometimes driving on sidewalks, down the wrong way on a busy street, over lane divides on the freeway (ring roads). I have mastered the merge between pedestrians, bicycles, tricycles, donkeys, rickshaws, public buses, private automobiles, taxis, and all other form of transportation. So, I want to make clear my skill, before describing the incident that has brought me down. As I approached on a reasonably wide street, with a white picket fence divider to my left, and cars parallel parked to the right, a motorized wheelbarrow scooted in front of me, while an elderly man on a bicycle slowly pedaled to his right. I followed behind the wheelbarrow scooter and even particularly gave the gentleman (or so I thought) a wide berth, even though in China one usually drives within six inches of the neighboring vehicle (literally, no exaggeration). Just as I was passing the cyclist, as the wheelbarrow machine had sped up and ahead, the bicycle ride swerved rather dramatically leftward and bumped the side of my car and fell. I instantly stopped, within five feet of the impact and within 1-2 seconds. We were concerned for his well-being and since I speak little Chinese, luckily Xiaodan jumped out to see how he was and help him up. I was driving so close to the left-side fence that I could not get out. Once it seemed confirmed that he was ok, but refused to get off the ground, and Xiaodan started to scold him, I figured we were going to be extorted and perhaps if I didn’t get out of the car, it might save some money (he later complained that I was arrogant since I didn’t emerge until much later).
He complained that we had hit him (he tapped the side of our car, scratching it a bit), and said as a 71 year old man that he had a heart condition and would have to go to the hospital. About ten onlookers came by and started to yell at him, motioning how much space there was between my car and the parked cars, and how he was on the side of the car not in front, so we could not have hit him. One gentleman who looked to be around 50 suggested we pay him 500 yuan (about $80) to settle the issue and move on, but he refused that amount, apparently hoping for something closer to 1-2,000 yuan since we were driving a car we could afford it. We discussed paying the 500, but I suggested 100 yuan since it was completely his fault, particularly by the rules of the road in China, where you simply can never swerve into another vehicle. We all move in unison, as one has said, like a school of fish, when a disruption, occurs we collectively avoid the intrusion, safely returning together to our former flow. You must never swerve for no reason. So, he repeated his contentions that we hit him, that his head was damaged, and would need a hospital. But he had nary a scratch, and his bike had not even one spoke bent. In fact, his basket of groceries, including about ten tomatoes still sat perfectly unaffected. Only a head of cabbage had trickled away.
So, as he refused to budge, cars honked, the crowd gathered, the foreign driver stared ahead blankly, the sympathy quickly draining away toward the humble old bike rider who now was only greedily considering what possible payday could result from such a fortuitous accident. I even wondered if he had carefully glanced to see a foreign driver and made his decision to hurl the bike, albeit gingerly, toward the slow moving Honda Fit. Likely, he was simply a poor bicycle rider. Xiaodan in the end called the police to come, as he now finally standing, continued to plead his case to the onlookers, who universally derided him and again chastised him for his story. A calm, middle-aged gentleman wearing a red tunic said he would not pay more than 100 yuan in this case, and the debates continued. Finally, after about an hour, a police car slowly emerged. Our chief concern was that I am not a licensed driver in China, which is illegal. In fact, I figured we would be paying at least 500 yuan if not to the ‘victim’ to the underpaid police officer. He asked for my license, and I produced my Arizona drivers license (good for 37 years in libertarian Arizona, a good deal for the $15 or so that it cost over a decade ago). He did not care about my license, though he took a digital photo of the crime scene with his smart phone, and supposedly recorded the various testimonials. He also appeared to agree that I was not at fault, and asked if the victim wanted to go to the hospital due to his complaints, and he thus admitted he was now fine. And if the victim did not want to simply ride his perfectly fine bike away, the cop asked after replacing the cabbage, what did he want? “well, not sure” was the seeming answer. The cop said to ask us what he wanted, and he replied to ask if this public servant could do the bidding for him. The police officer responded, no, you should ask yourself. But he could not be so direct as to ask for the money, but would not drop the case. So, the police officer pulled Xiaodan over beside his car, and said, “give him 200 yuan, and lets just end it here.” A meager apology on our behalf and 200 yuan was exchanged, and he grudgingly accepted the deal, though continued to plead his case to the cop as we were then allowed to leave. The officer offering these clear instructions to the victim that this was the end, there would be no follow up, so hospital bills, no lawsuit; that he had recorded the proceedings, and this was the final end. With that, my license was returned, and we departed to the north 3rd ring road for our journey home as the broad Western sun set in the gloaming of the Western Hills.
The consensus was that we got off cheap, the bill could have easily been over a thousand. Of course, I am troubled by the lack of integrity, the lack of character. I am naturally very sympathetic, and if my fault, would gladly settle a reasonable amount. I have been hit several times by cars, in my own car, on a bicycle, and even intentionally as a pedestrian in Washington DC, and walked away, as I was not injured. I have just spent several long discussions about the sad state of affairs in China when an elderly man slowly suffocated while choking after collapsing to the ground with a seizure in Wuhan and no one intervened to assist, fearing a lawsuit. That came on the heels of a high profile case where a supposed good Samaritan was sued in court and lost for coming to the aid of an older woman who was hit by a car I think, and claimed that her rescuer was the culprit. Opinion polls have suggested that a majority would follow suit and not lend a helping hand. I still am inclined to help, particularly if I witness the incident first hand, but I am very wary. Possibly, I may not intervene. I hope to be a witness to tell the truth, and make sure a just outcome results. Of course, I only know enough to say something that involves food or travel, not much help as an expert eyewitness.
And of course, this man may be recounting the crazy foreigner driving unlicensed in China and couldn’t even read a street sign that nearly killed him, à la Rashomon (Kurosawa). Well, some other stuff happened during the early stages of National Week holiday, but this was the most immediately impactful to stimulate a blog entry.  

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