I was driving along a street in Hangzhou, the nearest big city to the mountain, when the car in front slammed on its brakes. I almost smashed into it. I was taken by surprise, even more so when I realised the reason. The car had stopped for someone waiting to use a pedestrian crossing.
No one stops at pedestrian crossings, ever. When children visit from Britain I warn them not to use them. I am so used to ignoring them myself that I have to be extra careful when I rent a car back home.
Yet the citizens of Hangzhou are at last using pedestrian crossings—which have been in place for years—for their intended purpose. There are new characters painted on the road in front of the crossings: “Cars must stop for pedestrians” (from now on).
But every silver lining has a cloud. People who ride bicycles, motorbikes or electric bikes also use the pavements and therefore consider themselves to be pedestrians. They are now exercising their perceived right to use the crossings, to the annoyance of drivers. This has converted some crossings into minor roads for bikes with a perpetual right of way. I doubt that the new respect will last. It was already in abeyance when I tried using a crossing on foot myself. That was another close escape.
I spit in your general direction
I was spat at the other day. Another first. The spitter was just a teenager passing by on the back of a scooter, having a laugh, but the reason for the gesture was as clear as the glee in his eye. I’m a foreigner.
In my total of 16 years in China, beginning in the mid-1980s as a student, a veritable Yellow River of mucus has been expectorated in my vicinity, even my general direction, but never at me. I have become used to the constant, quietly spoken yet always audible expression of disdain for non-Han Chinese. I’ve had Chinese friends insulted for associating with me. I’ve even seen an official document ordering someone to teach me, “the foreigner,” a lesson. I’ve been called a few more names besides. But I’ve never been spat at.
It is plain to see that the Chinese are growing in confidence, preparing to recover what they consider is their rightful place in the world. In the meantime foreigners in China are being made steadily less welcome. A new tax, for example, has just been imposed on foreign employees. But spitting at us doesn’t fit with the image of the “harmonious society” the government promotes.
I’ll put it down as a one off. Or maybe it’s a positive sign of change, another that China could use: freedom of expression.