I do most of my traveling around Shanghai one of three ways: on foot, by subway, or by taxi. All three have their perks, of course. Walking I get to see all of the sights on the way to my destination. I can count the number of men who have decided to take a break to stretch their legs and take a public pee break. On the subway I can get extremely familiar with the perfume (or lack thereof) worn by my fellow travelers. I can get an up close look at what my neighbor has chosen for breakfast after he elbows me out of the way to take the last seat on the train. Riding in a taxi, however, has so many advantages. It lets me work on my reflexes as I prepare for sudden stops. It gives me the thrill that one can only experience when they are at the mercy of a stranger to get them from point A to point B in a timely manner. It gives me a chance to practice my Mandarin and lets me attempt to decipher the language of horn honking. Sure, back home people use their car horn for more than one purpose. It can be a warning—Hey! I am about to hit you! Argh!—or it can be a pleasant “hello” as you wave out the window. When I lived in Boston, there was plenty of horn honking, even some that was meant to get your attention in order for the driver to give you the finger. This was usually after they followed you for several blocks and then made a third lane in order to get really, really close to you. They really, really needed to express their displeasure concerning that turn you took 30 minutes ago. Sometimes these fellow road warriors would try to make you roll down your window so that they could better explain to you in colorful language just exactly why they disliked your driving.
But Boston has nothing on Shanghai when it comes to horn honking. No sir. In just the short amount of time I have been enjoying Shanghai taxis I have seen the horn used to convey many, many things. For example:
- Watch out! I am about to hit you!
- I am thinking about turning.
- Your motorcycle will be too close to me in approximately 3 seconds. When this happens I plan on hitting you!
- I am in this lane, sort of, but I am thinking about moving into that lane.
- My car is bigger than your bicycle, so don’t even think about it.
- You are driving too slow.
- You should have run that red light.
- I am going to run this red light.
- The light is about to change and I don’t think you are ready to gun your engine.
This last one is more common than you would think. For some reason, the traffic lights here give you an indication that they are about to change. And not just from green to red, but from red to green as well. This means that not only are people able to take a chance on a yellow light to keep from getting stuck at a red light, but on the other side of the intersection the cars are being simultaneously told that their light is about to go from red to green. I am sure this has some wonderful city planning implication, but what actually happens is that on one side, cars race to avoid a red light while at the same time all the cars on the other side begin to crowd into the intersection in preparation for their light to turn green. Add to this the constant movement of bicycles, scooters, and pedestrians and you have more chaos than I care to deal with on a Monday. Apparently accidents happen and some of them are serious. People get hit by scooters. Cars smash into each other when intentions are misinterpreted. Which might be the reason for number ten on my list. A few days ago while riding with an older man in his dilapidated taxi I realized he was just repeatedly honking. There was no real reason and nothing to make him think we were about to be smashed into or that we were going to smash into anyone else. Sometimes we weren’t even really very close to any other vehicles. But he kept honking. Just a rhythmic beeping that let everybody know we were there on the road. I couldn’t ask him why he had decided to honk like this, constantly alternating his thumbs on the wheel, so I just sat back to enjoy the scenery and the sound of the horn. I think maybe he just wanted everyone to know,
10. We are driving here. Take note.