Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Re-Entry #5: Polite Drivers

[This is something I wrote in early July. It is one of a series about the reverse culture shock I experienced when I returned to the United States after living abroad in Taiwan for over a decade. I'm back in Southeast Asia now, and have been posting about that, so this may seem to be out of sync with the rest of the material on this blog. Chalk it up to procrastination].

The one thing that I never got used to about living in Taiwan was the traffic. Not that it was heavy or congested, although at times it certainly was, but that the drivers over there are, well, let's just say that those stereotypes about Asian drivers are not just ethnic slurs. They are solidly based in fact. My purpose isn't to go on about that, though (I probably already have somewhere in this blog). My purpose here is to complain about how annoyed I am at the drivers in Seattle.

I never thought I would be bothered by drivers due to their being too polite. I'm used to having my life threatened on a daily basis by drivers who are lazy, inconsiderate, or just oblivious to their surroundings (or some combination of the three), so I was excited about the prospect of being back in a place where people actually take being a good driver as a point of pride. However, I've noticed that people in Seattle have gone too far the other way. While waiting to cross the street at various intersections, people have stopped to allow me to cross even when they clearly have the legal right-of-way. This sounds nice, but really it is a misplaced gesture. There are rules of the road that govern right-of-way, and when you violate them, even to be nice, you are messing with the system. This introduces confusion. It keeps people from understanding what they are supposed to do. Driving a car is no time to be nice.

When I know I'm supposed to wait, and a car that has the right-of-way starts slowing down, I lose the ability to predict what is going to happen next. The predictability that the rules-of-the-road provide is essential to safe driving. If we can't make certain assumptions about how other drivers or pedestrians are going to behave, then we can't know how to behave ourselves. A very basic example is which side of the road to drive on. In the U.S. we drive one the right, so drivers can assume that if they drive on the right everything will be fine, and when cars enter the flow of traffic they will also drive on the right. The relative lack of this kind of predictability is one of the things that drove me nuts about traffic in Taiwan

So when cars slow or stop when they shouldn't, it makes me confused. Is the car going to let me go? Or is the driver just changing radio stations or looking for an address? Generally in these situations I just stand there. I'll only cross if the car comes to a complete stop and the driver gestures for me to go, and even then I'm wary. Also, by that time I'm annoyed because it would have been much better if the driver had just kept going. There would have been no uncertainty, and that awkward moment (like when you sidestep to let someone by on the sidewalk and they also sidestep in the same direction) would have been avoided. It would have been quicker if they had just continued on. Also, when people slow down or stop when they shouldn't, they become a traffic hazard. Other drivers don't expect them to do that, and it could cause an accident.

This kind of thing--the overly polite gesture--is bound to happen once in a while, especially in a polite society in which people are considerate of others. During my short time back in Seattle, however, it has become a daily occurrence. In fact, it happens a few times every time I leave the house. I'm starting to get a bit paranoid about it. Is there something weird about me that makes drivers afraid to cross my path? Is there a "yeild" sign on me? Are my pants unzipped?

As with the subjects of all my "Re-Entry" posts, this is just something I need to get used to. And really, I can't complain too much. The people are just trying to be nice. And at least these drivers aren't directly threatening my safety. Then again, considering that I will be returning to Asia in just a few weeks, if I do get used to it I could become lulled into a sense of safety. That could wind up getting me killed when I hit the streets of a country where "polite" and "driving" are words that don't occur in the same context.

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