Friday, March 24, 2006

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

We're all familiar with the joke and the multitude of punchlines that go with it. The question I've been thinking about since my post yesterday on misunderstandings is not the why but the how: How did the chicken cross the road?

In other words, how do different cultures approach the task of crossing a busy street? And is the way one crosses the street indicative of that person's cultural upbringing?

Let's examine three different cultural approaches to street-crossing: 1. American Individualism, 2. Japanese Societal Constraints, and 3. Street-Crossingism with Chinese Characteristics.

First, as an American, I am most familiar with mom, baseball, apple pie and the American Individualistic approach to crossing the road. How does the American cross the road?

Every man for himself. Walk/ Don't Walk Signals are suggestions, not written-in-stone laws which must be obeyed. Most Americans use crosswalks at busy intersections, unless 1) no cars are coming or 2) the crosswalk is just too friggin' far out of the way. Most Americans will obey the Walk/ Don't Walk Signal unless 1) there are no cars approaching or 2) they think they can dash across in time.

Crossing the road for an American is an individual pursuit. We don't care about anyone else (unless you're a Boy Scout and the "anyone else" is a Little Old Lady, but I don't even think that happens much anymore). We look for gaps among the cars and dash through. Our primary concern is "Will I make it across the street?" Screw everyone else. It's amazing more of us aren't smashed by big trucks and buses.

In contrast, the Japanese Approach to crossing the street is governed by the saying The Nail Sticking Up Gets Hammered Down (or smashed by a big bus). The signal says Don't Walk. No one walks. The signal says Walk. Everyone walks. This is the land where people stop once the Don't Walk signal starts flashing. Craziness!

This is the land where at 3 in the morning with nary a car in sight, people wait for the signal light to change. This is the land where the slightly intoxicated businessman waiting at the light at 3 in the morning with nary a car in sight makes "tsk, tsk" noises at the two very intoximacated foreigners crossing against the light. This is the land where the two very intoximacated foreigners turn around and say [in mostly perfect Japanese], "What? You think we are going to get run over by all these cars?"

Sarcasm is so lost on those people.

Japan is a society where conformity tends to be a more admirable trait than individuality, and this is reflected in the way people cross the street.

Finally, Street-crossingism with Chinese Characteristics is a unique blend of American Individualism and Japanese Conformity.

Where I lived in China, on the outskirts of Beijing, there were no crosswalks, no traffic signals, and no Boy Scouts to help people across the busy busy super busy streets. And, man!, were they busy! Cars and cars and buses and trucks zooming by, spewing out smoke and exhaust, and leaving pedestrians to cough and gag in their wake. To cope, those clever Chinese came up with a brilliant method to cross the street - The Peloton:

After waiting by the side of the road, eventually a crowd of people would meet critical mass. Then, ever so slowly, they walk -as a group- into the traffic. The cars drive in front of the peloton, which keeps inching forward. Eventually, there is enough space behind the advancing peloton that the cars begin driving behind the group. This occurs across each lane of traffic, until, eventually, the peloton reaches the other side of the road.

As a foreigner, I had little faith in the Peloton and would usually hide in the middle of the group (buffers in case a car/truck/bus driver decided to drive through, not around, the peloton). My confidence increased dramatically one day, when one of my students said, "Steven, you cross the street very well."

I may have blushed.

In conclusion, the way one approaches crossing a busy street is determined by that person's culture and societal influences. However, whether you are American, Japanese, Chinese, Dutch, or German, the question remains: Why *did* you cross the road?

1 comment:

  1. i must be a reincarnated japanese person. i wait at lights when there are no cars around, late at night. i even cross at corners when there are no cars around. you see, i figure that if a car comes zooming out of nowhere (as they are wont to do) and hit me while i'm in a cross walk or doing the correct corner crossing thing, i can get more $$ from them. besides, i'm never in so much of a hurry that i'm dying to get there :)