The Tao of Walking

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.


7 responses to “The Tao of Walking

  1. Wes aka Barry Sanders,
    While reading this latest segment about how you are learning to move more effectively through the masses, I kept thinking of a running back and his field vision. It appears yours is improving. Instead of dancing behind the line of scrimmage or hesitating as you put it; you are seeing the lanes and hitting the open spaces. I like your analogy of water flowing much more than this football one but that is what it kept making me think of. Keep this up, I’ve really enjoyed following your experiences.

    PS. The Monk says what up

  2. I like the Barry Sanders analogy. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it works. I’m no Barry Sanders though, I’ve still got a little more fullback in me than tailback. But I’m working on that.

  3. I’ll try to be more critical in the future, but I haven’t found anything not to like so far. Reading this latest blog made me laugh when you mentioned Biggie, too. I immediately saw the swagger you meant. And I just happen to be reading the part in “Evolution for Everyone” that talks about the distinctions between shy and bold tits (the birds, not boobs), so the contrast between walking like a bully and moving like water was an interesting one.

    I had never thought about the difference between actively and passively ignoring others, but now that you mention it I see your point. Reminds me a little of riding on the Hop in Boulder – when it’s full I find it easy to pop my ipod on and ignore everyone, yet when there is only one other person it’s a bit harder to pretend he or she isn’t there. And God knows I never talk to people on the bus. I would but it just seems like the interest isn’t there on the other end. I guess nobody wants to expend energy on strangers who might get off at the next stop – even if everybody speaks the same language. Who knows? Maybe I’m wrong.

    I don’t have much else really, but I am curious to see if moving like water continues to be an apt analogy for you. I like the picture you paint mentally when I think about the experience of something so mundane here as walking. One last note, I’d like to hear more about how work is going, but that’s just me talking and isn’t really a complaint about the blog.

    P.S. I saw the Black Crowes last Friday and Warren G. plays the Fox on Wednesday. Who knows – maybe he’ll even be good.

    Later, Mike

  4. Hanging out among the crowds at the Denver Film Festival I got to thinking about this post and how poor Americans (well, at least those in Colorado) are at crowd flow. I can’t count the number of times I was caught up in the “traffic jam” behind a couple people who didn’t know what they were doing. There is also all that inefficient politeness. I hate when people who clearly have a right of way hesitate.

  5. a teacher who has been in asia for ten years

    Your conscious study and experiment with the tao of walking expresses well my own experience of trying to figure out how to move among the masses of people on the streets of many chinese cities. If I did look at them it was always a collision course. Afraid of pickpocketing because i was am American, I would hold my shoulder bag closely and try to look out for anyone trying to steal it. hypervigilant. yet noone seemed to be looking at me and they were all just moving along like cattle. touching yet not touching at the same time. I have been to NYC many time and been with just as many people on the sidewalk..there the aggressive bully stance works. but in china it just doesnt. luckily I always had an interpreter or chinese friend who would “front me”. I would hold onto her elbow and just dependently follow her as we flowed through the river.

    That has actually been my biggest lesson in china….to allow myself to be dependent on others. as an american devoted to individualism, allowing myself to be dependent on others has not come easily. I would like to hear your blog comment on this topic if it of interest to you.

  6. I’m sure I’m reading into this too much, but there’s something vaguely disturbing about your statement: “When I see no individuals, I incur no moral obligations.”

    It seems like this is how people get run over by a car and left to die in the street while the world moves on around them. Not saying this is necessarily a Chinese thing – just saying this is a crowd thing, a big city thing, the kind of thing that makes me glad I don’t live or work downtown.

    If you’re going to live your life in an area surrounded by so many people that you have to ignore them in order to function, then what’s the point? Why not move out and away and get some real peace?

    This isn’t meant to sound critical or argumentative – I’m genuinely curious.

    • Jessi,

      That statement was intended to be disturbing. I’m not approving of this mentality, just reporting it as I see it. I think it is partially a big city thing, but something is different about the Chinese when it comes to seeing people on the street. As I say in “The Wall,” it’s probably the thing I find most frustrating about living here. So I hear you.

      And at some point, I may move out to one of the outlying islands. It’s nice out there; there are dogs running around with kids. You can hear birds instead of jackhammers and car horns. But I’m personally not ready to move out and get some peace. Not yet. It’s a give and take. And you do get a lot in the form of mental stimulation and excitement living on HK Island. To me, right now, that makes up for the downsides. But I’m getting older, and my calculus will probably change at some point. Also, keep in mind that it’s really just the northern edge of the island that’s urban. Most of HK Island is green, and there are hiking trails and all that. Right now, I’m happy being right in the middle of it. I didn’t leave Boulder for HK to find peace and quiet.

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