Every single time that I watch the traffic in Taiwan… and especially when I am IN it… all I see is the potential for another Die Hard movie. I could not begin to properly convey my true feelings on this topic without starting from the very beginning.
The very first person that I met in Taiwan showed me just to what extent Taiwanese people are kindhearted. My professor told me beforehand that I would soon see that the Taiwanese are very hospitable. I was very pleased to see that the second I landed in Taipei. They always say “hello” and are always impressed and pleased when you can speak Chinese. They are excited to hear that you are interested in learning Chinese language and about Taiwanese culture. A common question is “Will you come back to Taiwan?” and I say “of course!” I had and still have nothing but high praises for the kindness that I have seen from the Taiwanese.
With that said, like anywhere in the world, there is always going to be something that makes your eyebrows shoot up and right off of your face.
I remember when I first got to Tainan…I was amazed at what I called the “bike culture”. So
many bicycles and motorcycles! I thought “Goodness! I need to get a bike… what an easy way to get around! EVERYBODY has a bike! I’m going to get one.” Of course, while I was having these thoughts of fascination, I was also convinced that I was going to have heatstroke. I over exaggerate but mean every word of it in the moment when it comes to high heat and humidity…Taiwan’s heat and humidity was out of this world as far as I was concerned. I am convinced that I will never again complain about Virginia heat and humidity ever again. “I am not going to let this weather take me out!” was something that I would say often…and now I am in a place where that sort of reaction is very appropriate. There was no way that I was going to walk in these temperatures to class…I was going to get a bicycle if it was the last thing that I did. The reason was not only to get out of the heat as soon as possible but because of Tainan itself. I had heard that it is a beautiful traditional city, famous for delicious pineapple cake, definitely for its night markets, and food.
The minute I got my hands on a bicycle, I wanted to feed my curiosity about Tainan by “getting lost in Tainan”. The first couple of nights, I just kept it as simple as following the rules of the road. Stop at a red light; go when there is a green light. How hard could it be? I saw SOME…*cough*…interesting…driving but I didn’t think at all that it was anything too serious. There isn’t a place in the world (I think) where someone does not try to bend the rules of the road a bit, right?
The first real clues that something was …off…started dropping in when I attended a lecture by the AIT, the unofficial Taiwanese embassy. Mr. Oba made it clear that we should not depend on Taiwanese drivers to follow the rules of the road. “Trust me,” he insisted…and then launched into foods that we must try while we are in Taiwan. I took note of what he said though. I thought “ok, I will be careful and just be extra mindful of my surroundings.” Why should there be any significant danger?
It didn’t take long for me to see the reality of the situation. I was out on an evening bike ride and saw a motorcyclist run a red
light…AND, let me tell you, he didn’t JUST run the red light. Put the imagery in your mind: He literally EXPLODED out of the pack of motorcycles, cars, and bicyclists that were waiting for the red light to turn green. I remember my eyebrows shooting up my face in shock…and just staring…saying “What the — (you can guess the rest).” I had long since noticed the dozens of cameras stationed right over the traffic lights so I was thinking that people breaking the road laws could not be something that happened very often. So, I say to myself… “Ok…with all of these cameras around…RIGHT OVER the traffic lights… running a red light can’t happen too often.”
I soon saw that, yes, something like this can most certainly happen often…. Every single day is the kind of often that I am talking about. Some days more noticeably dangerous than others. I am NOT just talking about running red lights either. Very often during the evenings, I would grab my bike and see if I could find my way back to campus by practicing my Chinese on the locals…BUT the more I saw how people were driving, the more I started to question my own sanity. Should I be exploring Tainan if everyone morphs into Speed Racer without a conscience when they’ve got someplace to go? …When I’ve seen people driving the way that they do? I suppose that I decided the answer to that was “Yes” since I didn’t stop going out. I was too amazed by the new surroundings and opportunities to practice speaking Chinese to let something as frivolous as my putting my life on the line stop me!
It was alarming to see all of those lights, all of that traffic, and hope not to get lost…but then I had to worry about what rules some drivers would decide to obey or disobey during every second that I was out. But you know what? Everyone else is alive and well…yes, I was hearing stories of other classmates having seen the aftermath of some motorcycle crashes, but what part of life is without risks. Haha…funny that I say that after my perspective this morning. That aside…for a while, I would amuse myself remembering when Mr. Oba first started talking about dangerous driving in Taiwan. He said that “this is something that none of you are used to seeing in the United States.” Something along those lines! He wasn’t kidding either… I even started humming the Mission Impossible theme song when I would bike on major highways so that I didn’t lose my nerve. The way that I saw it, I had to learn to keep calm while on the road or my time in Tainan would not be the experience that I wanted it to be.
While I am now used to biking the roads, the major highways, the alleys etc that doesn’t mean that the danger is not there. It is there. It sure is…too many motorcyclists think that they can somehow squeeze into unbelievably small spaces in the middle of traffic just to get where they need to go…or a FULL sized car driving into my lane and proceeding to drive dangerously close to me in an attempt to make that green light…OR even worse…those huge trucks…that have not seen me on more than one occasion. Or have they…O_o
One time I was out with friends and we were biking our way back to the dormitory and three different vehicles (a black SUV, a
huge truck, and a motorcyclist) ALL tried to take me out on three different occasions ON that same night. Just this morning… in broad daylight… I was in a lane closest to the curb on the right. I was in the bike lane…and a taxi magically appears on my left…dangerously close to me. The taxi sped and tried to pull a move out of some crazy action movie by quickly turning RIGHT…RIGHT in front of me…at that corner as I am still biking straight ahead. (refer to photo and take note of red arrow). The drawing cannot begin to convey the kind of move this man pulled.
This was yet another moment where I realized the importance of being able to curse in Chinese. This was yet ANOTHER moment where I wondered, “Shirley. Why. WHY. WEISHENME! Did you leave your Dirty Chinese book at home? You can’t even curse in the language in the country that you are in!”
I remember my language partner telling me that there are motorcycle accidents that occur very often. I can’t imagine why that would be the case. Now I think, “…Is someone going to cut me off at the very last second while I am making a turn that I am ALLOWED to make???” “Will I still be on this bike when I am cut off unexpectedly? Will I still be on this bike when a motorcyclist uses that ITTY BITTY BIT of space between my bike and the curb to squeeze through???” “Is my bike going to flip over at top speed like in every high speed car chase scene in Die Hard One More Time…or whatever it is called?”
Now that I am used to it…sort of…I can’t say that I am very tolerant of it. One thing is for sure …I do not feel this absurd level of paranoia like I used to. Maybe I am speaking too soon. Still, it can be extremely frustrating. I very rarely see police during the day and especially not during the evening when people are acting out all of the car chase scenes in the Mission Impossible movies.
I will say, though, it is kind of fascinating. The Taiwanese are generally very nice…but then as soon as you’re on the road with them, it’s like a transformation has taken place and the only question left to ask yourself is: “How badly do you want to live?” My professor told me that I would eventually get over culture shock…I may not be shocked about this anymore…but someone is going to pull a move on the road that will send me right back to it.
What can you do…when you are on the road with people who will look you in the eye, cut you off at a turn, and have you wondering IF you are going to hear “CUT”!?