Today I saw two men hit by a truck. Both were killed. They had to have been. A big blue truck full of earth being moved from one place to another accelerated through a green light that I watched ticking down – three, two, one, – and moved these two guys instantly from living to dead. One second earlier these two Chinese dead accelerated past me on a motorbike and across the intersection as I stood on my bicycle pedal, stationary, weighing up whether the blue truck was going to slow down or not. Of course it wasn’t. I know better. This is what they do. Instead of slowing down, they speed up. Instead of using their brake, they use their air-horn. I’ve been living in China for nearly four years now and I think I have a solid understanding and a great appreciation of many things Chinese. What I don’t understand and can not accept is the sheer stupidity of Chinese drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. They just don’t get it. I’d be naïve to suggest that it is just the Chinese. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen mangled machinery and bodies. I’ve seen a lot of it. I’ve seen the carnage in Thailand and not just on the evening news and daily front pages. I’ve seen a car skidding towards me on its roof in Oman, a male torso skidding with it, half outside the window, Kumar still hugging his bloodied head. Good fit. I’ve seen the damage done to a four wheel drive by a cancer ridden old man who sacrificed himself by stepping out onto the highway between Muscat and Dubai for the blood money that would guarantee his family’s future. These have largely been isolated witnessings for me. That is the difference. In China it happens all the time. All the time.
Just a few days ago I was sitting around with some friends having a Sunday hangover brunch and we were joking about one girl’s experience coming home at three in the morning. No one on the road and the taxi driver still managed to collect a guy on an electric bike. My friend did what we all do when this happens. She threw a note at the taxi driver and walked away, not wanting to get involved in the ensuing argument between the driver and the guy hobbling around with shards of plastic embedded in his face. Once I came close to beating the shit out of a taxi driver in my early days here when a teenage boy rolled up onto the windshield and then back down in a heap on the ground. The driver leapt from his car, ignored the kid and started inspecting the damage. The kid slowly got up and took one look at the angry taxi driver before quickly grabbing his bike and pedaling away down an alley that the car could not follow. Often the uninjured or barely injured victims of car on bike accidents stay on the ground long enough to ensure a quick and decent financial settlement as damage to transportation is assessed as well as initial outpatient costs at the local ‘hospital.’ They get up before the ‘ambulances’ arrive as that is an extra expense. We don’t call them ambulances here. We call them meat wagons. They’ll roll up alongside accidents and a couple of middle aged guys with cigarettes dangling from their mouths will jump out the back in grubby white coats and lift the injured, screaming in pain as their broken joints grind together, into the back. No first aid. No stretchers. No one seems to be bothered. The crowd of curious but largely unconcerned onlookers circling the scene rarely offer help or comfort to the injured. They wait for the meat wagon. What can they do?
There are two things that bother me about all of this. The first is that there should be all of this chaotic behavior on the roads in the first place. There don’t seem to be any consequences (aside from financial settlement of minor dings and scratches, or death) for crazy driving. I’ve seen the traffic police sit idly by while buses jammed to the ceiling with passengers run red lights with the driver simply leaning on the horn. The policemen just light another cigarette. It doesn’t help that driving licenses are bought rather than earned. Things just seem to be getting worse here as more and more people migrate to where I live and more and more concrete mixers and big blue trucks race arrogantly up and down the roads that I share on my bicycle. There doesn’t seem to be any education either let alone consequences. No public safety campaigns seem to exist. Obviously the yearly death toll that runs into the hundreds of thousands in China barely touches a population of this size. This leads me to the second thing that bothers me. No one seems to give a shit. The callous disregard for human life is, to me, astonishing. But then I wonder if it is disregard or just plain stupidity. That gets me onto my ‘Homer Simpson Theory.’ Homer is not a smart man, bless him. With a population the size of China, exactly how many people are below average intelligence? How many are there of Homer’s intelligence level. I’m no mathematician but there are quite a few. Most of the people driving the heavy vehicles and riding the bikes, electric bikes and motorbikes around here are migrant workers with an education not beyond primary level (if they are lucky) even if they are above average intelligence. They do stupid things. They make dumb decisions. When I grew up I was diligently taught to look left, look right, and look left again. Some of the migrant workers arrive here having only ever had to dodge an errant goat on a road. They just don’t know how to behave on the roads which is why I am constantly swerving around these “grass-bags” as they spill out of nowhere onto the road with no regard for their own or others’ safety.
I don’t know how long the guys on that motorbike had been away from the countryside. I don’t know how smart they were. I do know that the driver made a stupid decision not to stop and stare at me like many of them do; the bizarre lau wai wearing shorts and a bicycle helmet, riding a mountain bike rather than a Flying Nun. I saw it all happen right in front of me. I felt them brush past me and silently cursed that they should come so close to hitting me as I glanced up at the green light ticking down and then down at the big blue truck hurtling along. A few seconds earlier I’d weighed up whether I’d beat it myself. Oh yes, I am a participant in the theory of chaos that oversees it all. But I look left, right, behind, in front, and over both shoulders again for good measure before I throw myself into the no mans’ land of intersections. I tensed as I saw what was going to happen. I jumped as I heard the piercing screech of the air-horn and squeal of brakes. I winced as I saw and heard the crunch of impact. I couldn’t look away as I saw their helmet-less heads explode and their bodies grate away on the road under a big black tire that locked against the spine of the passenger. I stood transfixed for a few seconds, checked left, right, front, behind, and rode across the road, behind the truck and onward to complete my errands. As I carried on living, all I could hear was the impatient blaring of air-horns of those held up by the stationary truck. I turned back to look before braving the next intersection and saw a curious crowd milling around.
Detachment? It is inevitable. But I don’t stand and watch.
It sounds like much of the less developed parts of Asia are much the same in this regard. And some countries are REALLY bad. As much as I like the place, driving standards in Cambodia are much worse than Thailand!