In HK, there’s one thing every Westerner complains about. The seemingly oblivious way Chinese people walk around in public spaces can be very aggravating. Indeed, it’s been a major source of mini-temper tantrums throughout my days so far. This is one area where it’s easy for foreigners to feel like the Chinese are just flawed. They are simply inconsiderate to strangers; they don’t even acknowledge the existence of others when walking down the street. But I think there’s more to it than that. There must be.
Chinese people have been living continuously in cities for perhaps longer than any ethnic group on Earth. And they’ve been doing it thousands of years longer than Anglo-Saxon Europeans. HK has one of the densest populations in the world, yet there is virtually no violent crime. It’s hot as hell and twice as humid in the summer, yet people don’t seem to want to kill each other like in the US. It’s safe to say the Chinese have a few things figured out when it comes to getting along in dense urban areas.
When Chinese people acknowledge my existence, they are unfailingly polite. This politeness requires energy, and it requires patience (and dealing with foreigners always requires more patience than dealing with culturally competent adults). Since energy and patience are things humans possess in limited supply, it just doesn’t make sense to acknowledge everyone’s existence. The population density is just way too great for than; and in China it has been that way for thousands of years. One can incur no immediate moral obligations toward people one cannot see. The Chinese way of walking is the product of thousands of years of cultural evolution, and it’s not to be taken lightly. It may very well have many positive effects, and it may be the future.
As a level 2 gweilo, I thought I had it all figured out, including the walking thing. But what a gweilo learns as he begins to progress beyond level 2 is that he doesn’t have anything figured out. At level 2, my walking strategy was basically to go with my instincts, and exaggerate them. So I walked like a Westerner, except with a little extra swagger. I put on my head phones, bumped some hip hop, and walked to the rhythm of the music, not the rhythm of the city. I looked directly at people, and essentially intimidated them into getting out of my way. This is the way of the bully. I’ll do it my way, and force 7 million people to adjust to me. To a point, it works. A swagger gets noticed more than a hesitant walk, and people did stay out of my way to a certain extent. But it only works with people who are going the opposite way; people in front of me who are going the same way don’t see me and therefore aren’t bullied into getting out of my way. And it upset the whole flow of the sidewalk, which often created traffic jams that I would get stuck in. If I’m really going to exist in this city, I need to adapt. My gas bladder issues are recurring. Back to beginner’s mind.
On my last two days off, I devoted some time to practice walking. I went to all the most pedestrian packed areas, and the ones with the most Chinese, the fewest foreigners. I went to Causeway Bay, to Mong Kok, and to Sham Shui Po. I observed. And I practiced. I’m still practicing.
What I’m practicing is walking without ever looking directly at people. I look up, I look down, or to the side, but I don’t make eye contact with strangers. In the process, I’ve discovered why the way of the bully only gets you so far. When I looked directly at Chinese people on the street, there were two likely outcomes: they would either just totally get out of my way, or (more likely) they would just look further away from me. By forcing people to actively, not passively, avert their gaze, I made it really difficult for them to see me, even peripherally. And there were collisions. And traffic jams. So I’m working on being like water. Going with the flow. By never focusing on any individual, I get a better sense of the crowd. I see the empty space more, the path of least resistance. The way of water is at least as effective as the way of the bully when it comes to getting down the street quickly. And it’s much easier on my emotional state.
Though the way of water is not aggressive, it’s not passive either. When I first got here, before I discovered the way of the bully, I was very hesitant in my walking. Constantly trying to avoid people, I looked at people and tried to anticipate which way they would go so I could avoid them. Hesitant is the worst way to walk in HK. When I tried to be polite by my standards, I just got in the way. The failure of this supposedly deferential walking style leads many foreigners to adopt the way of the bully. It’s really funny, nowhere in the world will you see white people walk with more swagger than in HK. It’s like everybody’s bumping Biggie. The hyper-aggressive and the hyper-passive both involve too much attentiveness to individuals. The way of water is ego-less and self-centered. As long as I’m going with the flow, nobody sees me and I see nobody. When I see no individuals, I incur no moral obligations. As a result, I just go to the empty space. I don’t think about whether others are going for the same space or not. I can’t see them and they can’t see me. And it just works. I’m more synchonized with the city (sometimes), and with a little more practice I may be ready to start moving toward level 3. But for now, the terrible twos continue.