Monday, September 24, 2012

Driving in China

I've been back in China for four weeks now.  In the seven weeks I have been gone the traffic has gotten even worse.  Our city is adding a thousand new cars every month.  What this means is there is a monthly influx of a thousand rank rookie Chinese drivers hitting the streets in their new wheels in their pursuit of enhanced face.  They muddle along, learning which pedal does what, trying to avoid hitting  each other, all the while, blithely ignorant of even the most rudimentary driving skills— other than horn honking.  Horn honking is something that I think they teach beginning in preschool.  Apparently there is even an advanced offering in the universities.
Meanwhile, Japan and China have been engaged in some serious chest thumping over some barren islands off the coast of China that Japan seems to think they own, but that an international court most likely would determine that they belong to China.  The only reason anyone is even remotely interested in them is because of potential gas and oil reserves there.  That’s also a reason China is trying to claim waters off the coasts of Viet Nam and the Philippines.  Gotta fuel those incompetent drivers in their quest for self esteem.
Owning a car here is a rather expensive, inconvenient pursuit.  The streets suck, fuel and insurance are expensive, cars are expensive to buy relative to income, and there is absolutely nowhere to park.  However, achieving big face is one of the prime directives of Chinese life, and nothing says big face like a big, black, Mercedes Benz. 
Imported cars carry a massive tariff, almost doubling the price of the car, so a BMW is one pricey set of wheels.
The streets are chockablock with cars, weaving around in whatever lane or lanes, honking, randomly stopping, pulling out in front of traffic, turning left from the outside lanes, all in a fruitless pursuit of non existent parking places.  Much time is spent idling in dinky parking lots waiting for someone to leave.  Sidewalks become clogged with parked vehicles, forcing pedestrians to walk in the streets.  Parking is often the ultimate quest, for the following reason:
Very dark window tinting is popular here.  It sort of defeats the purpose conspicuous consumption, since nobody can see you in your very expensive car.   Since the windows are all so dark, nobody can see the insecure rich person, until they emerge from their shiny black albatross.  Look at me, I’m a very successful person!
Periodically one sees a massive black SUV parked in a traffic lane while the owner takes care of whatever business he needs to conduct.  This person has enough clout, or bluster, to feel that others can just work their way around their parked vehicle.
Ten years ago, almost nobody owned a car, but now everybody wants one!  Car ownership in China is craziness on a grand scale.  You haven’t achieved success unless you own a car. 
I wonder how many people will eventually feel buyer’s remorse once the novelty wears off.  How long will it take before sitting in traffic in a fruitless quest for parking reveal itself to be a rotten way to spend one’s precious spare time?  How much effort and work was required to purchase this toy that upon purchase begins to lose its value? 
It seems a hollow goal, to own a car here.  I had a car for decades in the US, and now I’m happy to walk and use cheap taxis to go where I need to go.  It’s liberating.  I wonder when people here will begin to feel the same way?

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