What disturbs me about China are the tempers… including my own. There is something to be said about the advice of keeping “toxic” people out of your life. What if half the world around you is toxic? You may hear that people are aggressive here, and I can see it in the subway stations, the street, the driving, and in the way people talk (read “shout”) to one another.
There’s some anger in China. You’ll hear about people protesting when villages or hutongs are being bulldozed in favor of some big construction or development project or when working conditions are ugly (which is often). But what surprises me is just the general aggression and viciousness bubbling beneath the surface with some people. Hair-trigger tempers are all around you waiting to snap.
I watched two taxi drivers in Shanghai leave their taxis parked in the middle of an intersection to get out and try to pummel each other. I wished I could speak Mandarin as I wanted to shout, “Pull his jersey up over his head and you got him!”
The next night I see a crowd forming around another fight in a side street off Nanjing Road. I have no idea who hit whom but in the yellow half-light of that dusty street, scattered with garbage and rotting vegetables from the now packed-up market, I saw the whole scene as something very primal, perhaps a stereotype of “third world” living. There was no sense of order or that the fight was broken up or that anyone was going to run if an authority even showed up. The tension was palpable. And yet, just three blocks up the street was Nanjing Road, all glitter and gold with impressive modern skyscrapers, a city skyline like no other, luxury brands commanding huge display windows. As Werner Herzog once put it, “Civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.”
Every trip I see more of the same. I’ve seen pedestrians pounding on car hoods. It’s like bar closing time at night in the States when macho runs as high as the blood alcohol content. Except here one might be sober on a sunny day. In my few years of visiting China I have witnessed more brawling than I’ve seen in a lifetime of American bars and college parties. Something’s not right here.
Last week was no different. At my first office appointment I came up in the elevator with a man and woman going to the same floor. I didn’t pay direct attention to them but they seemed to be chatting affably. I went left (the wrong way) and they went right. I realized my error and turned to follow them. They were smiling and walking with no urgency, but when they turned into the same office I was heading for, all sorts of shouting started. I thought, GEES, I know the Chinese are loud but… this is definitely a fight. Sure enough. Shouting, shoving and grabbing. It was rather creepy and went on for quite a while. The man (from the elevator?) was pretty scary and a woman (surely not the one from the elevator?) was screeching at him. A crowd gathered, one person on an iPhone recording it. The man, no longer using his words, began shoving the woman. A few started grabbing at shirt sleeves to pull people back. Someone noticed me standing bewildered in the hall, realized I was the morning appointment, and they scooted me through the melee. When I left the meeting, two building security guards, dressed like the Secret Service, stood on either side of the door.
I spent an hour in the street begging passing taxis to take me to the next address but to no avail, so I took subways to a closer point and had better luck with the taxi crowd there, going through 5 before I found one who wanted my money. On the ride home from there, my taxi driver drove fast and furious into the gathering rush hour traffic. It was impressive. He weaved in and out of lanes and shoulders, and veered off onto frontage roads or side streets to avoid certain intersections. He managed to avoid most delays and seemed to work his way by magic through the entangled world around us. It was exhilarating, in fact, and rather than fear, I felt admiration; I’m not the world’s most patient driver.
So we were close to my hotel at this point and at a congested intersection my taxi stopped though the light was green. There was no place for him to go forward and then a group of pedestrians and cyclists took the opportunity to cross in front of us. There was perhaps one car length of space on the other side, but as my driver waited for the crossers, the light went red and we waited. The taxi driver behind us gave a burst of his horn in protest. My driver put the car in park, ripped open his door and stomped back to the other car. Oh man, here we go. He shouted, pounded the hood, and after a moment, came back and we continued. We were both quiet and I looked over at him and made a small nervous Ha. He gave a small chuckle himself, and then went into a tirade about it in Chinese. I imagined through his gestures he was protesting the injustice of being honked at when you don’t have a If You Love Jesus bumper sticker on your car. “What can I do? There are people standing in front of me. Do I run them down??” (maybe) I just nodded in commiseration, “Yep, exactly.”
But now he was in full-blown road rage. He weaved without the previous grace; he floored it, reaching 80-90 km/hour in the space of a half a block while I looked straight ahead at the red brake lights of a bus. Then he’d pound the brakes. At one point that wasn’t enough, and he had to swerve into the next lane to avoid rear-ending a car. He’d race down the shoulder and I grit my teeth imagining a cheeky pedestrian stepping out in anticipation of a light change and ending up in my lap.
Most accidents happen within five minutes of “home” they say. I just had to survive about a dozen more blocks. I struck up conversation despite no common language between us. “What is name? This street? Name? Something ‘diaje’?” He had to think about all this, but then he understood and told me the street name, sounding it out syllable by syllable for me. It calmed him. I pointed to the map on If Found Please Return Me to This Hotel card and I couldn’t see that street name. He understood and pointed out a street sign that indicated a block ahead the street name changed. Oh, I see. We both smiled, and a few blocks later he found my address and let me out.
A woman waiting on the sidewalk took the cab, “Thank you,” she said. “Don’t thank me yet,” I thought.
What is the source of all this rage? It may simply be the crush of population or the fatigue from the pollution which may not “cause” the Chinese public spitting problem but surely drives the collective sinus issues that create all the gunk; or maybe there is a sense of desperation over everyday resources, holdovers from harder times, an urgency of grabbing whatever’s left or be left without. One expat told me the taxi drivers used to make a killing but changes in the laws and system left them struggling like everyone else to turn a yuan; they are not happy workers.
But the thing that shocks me is just how aggressive I become in response. I snap at the constant badgering of street touts and their mantra of “Watch, bag? Lady massage? Sex?” offers. The aggravation and the aggression pushing around me feed an urge to push back. On one day I hadn’t eaten due to some scheduling overlap and a bad choice for a quick street stand item (which went straight to the trash), so part of this may have been hunger issues. I gave up and went to McDonald’s for an easy point-and-eat meal of familiar poisons rather than the unknown ones. (Don’t judge!)
I sit at a table for two next to a couple similar tables pushed together next to it. I sit on the booth-bench side and chairs face me. I begin to eat, slouched over my meal, when a crowd of older Chinese folks come in after riot-shopping (think door busters at Wal-Mart but without the special occasion) in the adjacent building where piles of stuff are spread on tables or on canvas sheets on the ground outside. They crowd into the bench and chairs and one sits across from me. The lady to my right is actually bumping my arm. I’m just amazed that they’ve swarmed in like this and none of them has food or anything. And then the shouting conversation begins. I focus on getting the food down and getting the hell out of there.
This goes on for a while and then someone comes up behind me and is essentially hanging right into my space, right over my food and (I think) asks who wants ice cream. The woman across from me, two feet from my face turns directly to me and replies with such volume right through me, that I just snap before I can think – right in rhythm with her outburst – which is probably her saying “oh my gosh we should all get vanilla and eat it right here right now and use this guy’s tray to catch the drippings” – right in rhythm with this, I just burst out with a matching crescendo of hey, hey, Hey, HEY, HEYHEYHEY, HEEEEEY! Full shout. Wow. I felt one part awesome, one part guilty. They all tittered and sat in their seats like schoolchildren called to attention, and used their inside voices. The lady across from me put her finger dramatically to her lips to use the shhh gesture like a librarian.
We didn’t speak each other’s language, so it astounded me that my little outburst of impatience was immediately understood to be a response to their volume. It also surprised me that one middle-aged Westerner hunched over his cold fries at McDonald’s could put a crowd of locals in order, as if I were somehow an authority (or dangerously crazy) just for my status as white male foreigner.
I took my drink outside to finish it and realized I really needed to get on to the next country as soon as possible.