From cabs to bicycles, getting from A to B in Beijing is fraught with peril!
First, I'll touch on getting around via cab, before launching into my bike story. No two cab rides are the same in Beijing, and you never know which moment might be your last. Traffic rules do not apply to Beijing drivers, and cab drivers least of all. Every Beijinger drives as if he or she has the right-of-way all the time. Oddly enough, I have yet to see a collision, or even a dent in a fender. I would be very interested to see statistics regarding the frequency of traffic accidents in Beijing and accidents in New York; perhaps there is reason to believe that a less rules-oriented approach to traffic control is more safe, though I doubt it.
An interested cultural tidbit regarding traveling by cab is that the quickest way to offend a Chinese cab driver is to buckle your seatbelt. It says to him that you do not trust his driving, and it really ruffles his feathers. I personally think that that is literally the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard, but I am trying to be culturally sensitive to this quirk. The thing is, though, that if there is any cab in which you want to buckle your seatbelt, it's a Beijing cab! It is interesting that we have collectively decided to forswear safety in this situation to adapt to this cultural norm.
Cabs and the subway aren't the only way to get around, though. I went with four other midshipmen and a student in our program from another school to purchase bikes. Bicycles are probably the most popular way to get from point "A" to point "B" in Beijing. All major roads have a separate lane for bicycles (although bicyclists feel free to ride in any part of the road they want). We all wanted some rusty secondhand bikes that would make us feel like "真正的北京人" ("zhēnzhèng de Běijīngrén" - that is, "real Beijingers"), but there weren't enough at the secondhand "store" on the side of the street where we were looking, so I forked over more money for a new one at a different store. We had taken the metro there, but now it was time to test our new purchases with a ride back to school on them.
The road back home was a perilous one, indeed. As Beijing drivers have the right-of-way at all times, there were more than a few close calls with cars and other bikers as well as pedestrians, all trying to avoid cars. Our journey back was as fraught with misfortune as it was with peril. One of us accidentally made contact with a (parked) car. He went back to see if there was any damage where he thought he'd hit it, and seeing none and hearing other Chinese people around us to just move along, we continued on our way. At the next big intersection, while we were trying to get our bearings, a woman on a bicycle starts talking to us. We originally thought she was trying to help us out with some directions, telling us to turn back around. But after a time, the other student who was with us, whose Chinese was better than ours, realized that she was talking about the car. We were confused and thought she was trying to scam us - if it were her car, then why was she now on a bike? - but when we tried to leave, she grabbed the handlebars of the other student and held on tight. Eventually, a man, presumably her boyfriend or husband, came up on a moped and also started yelling at us. Now we definitely thought we were being scammed; why did he have both a sedan and a moped here? As the excited talking and confusion mounted, a crowd began to grow around us where we were at the corner of the street, observing the commotion between the two Chinese people and the five foreigners. We tried to leave a couple more times, but they both held on to the handlebars of two of our bikes and demanded we give them some ridiculous sum of money to compensate for whatever damage we had done to the car. Since we did not even believe the car was theirs (when we asked to see the car keys, he had none), we refused. They dialed a number and showed it to us - we correctly took this to mean they were calling the police.
At this point, we called our program's Resident Director, Andria, requested permission to speak in English, and relayed her the events of the last half hour. She told us to wait for the police to show up, which was what we had planned on doing anyways. The arguing continued while we waited for the police, with the crowd around us (which had been growing this whole time) chiming in and offering their two cents. When the cop arrived, both sides of the situation were explained to them (though how well and articulately our side was presented, I could not honestly say). Eventually, after everyone had their say - including the numerous spectators - the police officer directed us back to the "scene of the crime," where upon further examination there was found to be damage to the bumper, not where the one who had hit it had looked.
Here, we got to witness firsthand Chinese justice being done. Absolutely hilarious.
Many people had followed from the big intersection back to the car to see this whole tale play out. One who had been very vocal at the intersection, henceforth known as "Striped Shirt" because he was, well, wearing a shirt with stripes, was among those who followed. He continued to be a very vocal presence at the car, and as he argued with the car owner (it turned out it was his car), we realized that he actually was on our side. The crowd now not only included most people who followed from the intersection, but also countless other passersby who apparently had nothing more important to do with their lives that afternoon than to stand around and listen and contribute to this ruckus. I cannot place a number on how much the crowd swelled, but it got so ridiculous that the policeman alternated between listening to everyone voice their opinions on how much should be paid and directing the traffic around this enormous throng of people.
That's the thing, though; he allowed the mob to haggle out a price like we were at the Silk Market bargaining for a pair of shoes! In the US, I feel a police officer would never have stood for the chaos that happened here, so I was very intrigued by the way this was playing out. I was also very surprised to see that most of the crowd actually had our back. Among these was an outspoken lady in a pink shirt. We called her "Pink Lady" - we're a creative bunch. She came into the picture halfway through, but she would make her voice heard, darn it! She led the charge in persuading everyone that the fee ought to be one hundred yuan (about fifteen US dollars), as opposed to the thousand or whatever that the car owner wanted. Theo, the other student with us, at one point yelled out in Chinese, "Everybody! One hundred yuan?" to which there was nearly unanimous consent. In the end, we settled on two hundred yuan, there was a quick exchange of money, no paperwork, and we went on our way.
Except it did not end there. The police officer came back, had the car owner return the money, and told us to follow him to the police station; though puzzled, we obeyed. When we got there, three of us waited outside while the car-hitter and Theo went in with the officer and the car owner. While we waited, confused, none other than Striped Shirt and Pink Lady showed up, having walked the entire way from the accident scene to the station! I guess they supposed that since they devoted their entire afternoon to this fiasco, they might as well see it to its conclusion. They tried talking to us, but without Theo, it was a struggle to understand what they were saying. Eventually, though, we came to understand that they were telling us that this car owner was not supposed to be driving a car in Beijing because he was from a different part of China - and a light bulb went off.
In one of Shen Laoshi's (Professor Shen's) classes on Chinese culture, we learned about China's "hukou" system - essentially a residency registration system. It's a way for the Chinese government to regulate the flow of people from place to place within the country as well as allocate money, services, and resources. One's hukou determines where one can have access to public education and healthcare and other resources. This system helps keep people from leaving the countryside, where people are needed to grow food and produce other goods, for the city, where the quality of government services is much higher, but where their hukou does not allow them access to these higher-quality services.
So if this car owner had been a Beijinger, with a car registered in Beijing, everything would have been fine once the money had exchanged hands. But since his car was not supposed to be there in the first place, paperwork needed doing - and when our friends finally came out from the police station, we ended up not having to pay any money at all! Of course, this begs the question: why did he dare call the police in the first place? Perhaps he didn't know, perhaps he thought it wouldn't come up. I do not have an answer, but once we were free to leave, we were eager to get back to school; the whole ordeal lasted about five hours - no kidding - and we were starving. We thanked Striped Shirt and Pink Lady for their help and support, took a few pictures with them, and went on our merry way.
I am happy to report that no more cars were damaged on our way back home.