Personal space and crossing roads in China

crossing roads Guangzhou

My lovely friend Laura unknowingly dribbles spectacular, if not insane life-advice on a regular basis. It can be like panning for gold and occasionally, applying it to everyday life can be just plain offensive to the general public. However, there is one particular nugget that I apply on an almost daily basis and I’m sure it’s saved my life more than once. A few years ago, when crossing a blaring highway outside Sydney because the pedestrian path had run out, grasping her patent leather Vivienne Westwood handbag she glared into the darkest-legal tinted windscreen of a Land Rover for perhaps three weighted seconds. “If you look em in the eye they can’t hit ya!” She hobbled in front of the monster-car, across the bitumen in her red disco-pants and looked back at me still trapped on the other side of the road.

The theory, as I understand it, relies on the intensity with which you bare into the irises of the motorist: try to stump them with your human presence in the hope that they can’t deny your connection, and hence avoid hitting another being. In the case of particularly malignant drivers, those who may even cruise around with an occasionally buoyant, no matter how deeply suppressed rage yearning to knock someone down, perhaps aim to strike a guilt factor. One place you should not ever attempt this theory: China.

Here’s the situation: it’s the small hours of the morning as I walk home from a corner snooker hall with a friend and we chat tiredly, complaining of how hopelessly infiltrated our clothing is with cigarette smoke and how when we wake it will be nauseating. The street is well lit, and even at this hour, there are people of all ages milling around steaming bamboo stacks, playing mahjong and chatting wildly with the intermittent pretty tones and gnarl of southern Mandarin. We cross a zebra crossing of a small bitumen lane as a car rolls slowly around the corner. I perform the ritualistic stare into the driver’s eyes and then pointedly ahead to announce my precedence. It obviously has no effect whatsoever because the driver continues in his slow path, avoiding my gaze and instead looking down to the wheel before plowing on through. After a further two experimental eye-contact tests on subsequent days yielding the same result, I re-establish my defensive pedestrian stance. One question lingers frustratingly: WHY ARE YOU GOING TO THE EFFORT OF PRETENDING TO NOT SEE ME?

personal spaceThe Guangzhou Metro has been listed as one of the busiest in the world. Last week during peak hour, as I stood crushed between an entire floor of people attempting to transfer lines in Tiyu Xilu, I felt exasperation burn around my temples and I wanted to cry. The action couldn’t even be called shuffling: there was no movement whatsoever. We were a sweaty, fleshy, grid-locked sea of wriggling things. I had to escape, so I jumped the nearest barrier after inching towards it for 10 minutes and sat outside the metro until I’d pulled it together and could begin the three-stop walk home. As I pulled myself to my feet, however, a small middle-aged woman slammed to the concrete ground, tripping down two stairs and landing directly on her tailbone. Everyone’s had a publicly humiliating fall like this, and as the floor was coated in a layer of humidity, I saw shock and sorrow dart across her face, instantly followed by wincing pain. I stepped through two men to help her up, but she simply stood straight up and flowed back into the streaming people. Not a single person looked twice at her. She did not exist.

A word I’ve heard thrown around the place to describe Chinese culture could be a collectivism. This is the basis of what some in my beautiful country of Australia conceptualise as the antipathy of our supposed individualism. What this means, on in very basic sociological context, is that people act in the interests of the group and not necessarily of themselves. I also view it as a way for Chinese people, particularly of my generation, to discuss their society without using the outdated Maoist regime rhetoric, as it’s a somewhat more contemporary concept and term than “communist”. The obvious irony here is that the high power-distance relations of a communism which are so stringently defined in the institutional sense still pervade the inter-human connections of Chinese people. This is perhaps not only why the woman at the Metro was ignored, but also why my boss at work will never discipline me or my colleagues, but pass caution down the hierarchy until I find out. Even if it’s from the cleaning staff.

The people I speak to glorify the growing social consciousness and empathy of younger Chinese generations, as well as their increasing power to enter new discourses regarding their identity, so perhaps it’s changing. This is also high-density living and it explains completely the reason that the next morning waiting for a bus, an elderly woman listened so closely to my English conversation with another whitey also waiting for the bus, that she leaned in on my arm as though I were a street lamp to rest on. She smiled and frowned absentmindedly in concentration, staying balanced for a few minutes before losing interest in our idle talk and waddling off to discuss the news with the man selling papers. Among all the terms floating around the stale, still dimly academically-focused spheres of my brain, it was a sweet reminder that a sense of personal space is a privilege in the majority of the world.

Stephanie Cobon


Words by Stephanie Cobon