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America, beijing, huzhou, less food-related, MEAT, musings, Reverse Culture Shock, Shanghai, teaching

In-CAR-ceration

02.11.11 | 6 Comments

When I taught college in Huzhou, I used to do a unit on the stages of life: baby, toddler, kid, adolescent, teenager, adult, etc. I used to also teach my students the ages that Americans could drive, buy cigarettes, vote, and drink. They were always amazed that the drinking age is 21, as there is no drinking age in China, but they were always a bit flummoxed that 16-year olds could drive. 16-year olds have cars? They usually walked away from that class feeling as though all Americans were inconceivably rich, because most families owned two cars, and many teens had cars they could drive.

I tried to explain that it’s because in America, you have to drive, but in China personal cars are such a luxury that it was hard for them to comprehend everyone having one car, let alone two. This brings up a big issue I’ve had with America since being back: driving. Everywhere, but especially in Florida, if you want to get anywhere, you must drive. In China, we used to walk to Carrefour for groceries—a whopping 15 minutes each way. Here, the nearest supermarket is an 80-minute walk each way! Places close by are a “quick” 20-minute drive. Only when a drive is over an hour is it considered long. This drove me crazy the first two weeks I was here. I remember lying in the back seat of John’s car, ready to burst into tears because simple errands required two hours of driving.

ellis-friedman-plate-of-wander-drivingImages from a drive to Miami

I am now more than ever a huge admirer of China’s public transportation system. They are way, way ahead of us. There is absolutely no need whatsoever to buy a car. (In fact in Beijing, having a car is a detriment. 9-day traffic jams?!) Nationally, there are thousands of long-distance buses, trains, and bullet trains. In all cities, there are multiple and extensive bus networks to get you anywhere. Metro lines spider throughout larger cities so that there are fewer and fewer neighborhoods not within a 15-minute walk from a metro stop. In smaller cities like Huzhou, where I lived for a year and a half, there’s no need for even a metro; walking the city end to end takes maybe an hour and a half. If you’re in a rush, there are tons of taxis.

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All you really need are your feet! The cheapest, and in my opinion, most enjoyable, form of transportation is bicycling, followed closely by walking. Things are densely spaced and densely populated. Walk two blocks in most Chinese cities large and small, you have pretty much everything. Walk two blocks in Florida, you’ve gone nowhere.

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We are used to having the power and luxury to drive ourselves anywhere we need to go anytime we want quickly. No waiting for the bus, no walking 4 blocks from the metro stop to our destination. We go places without moving! And if you park your car at the far end of the parking lot to get in some extra walking, well, no matter what French Women Don’t Get Fat tells you, parking lots aren’t big enough to make up for that much lack of movement.

Along with our meat and processed-food heavy diet, this is, I’m convinced, a huge part of the so-called obesity epidemic in America. It’s not even problem solely of fat—there are plenty of unhealthy not-fat people. It’s a health problem. Our bodies are meant to move and we aren’t using them. You wouldn’t need to buy that expensive gym membership if you biked and walked everywhere. A comprehensive public transportation system could revolutionize our finances, our waistlines, and our health, but it seems to me that Americans are far too tied to their cars to ever change.

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If were to propose we stop building new highways and instead build an infrastructure similar to Beijing or Shanghai’s, people would go berserk. The project would take billions of dollars, but China has all that in treasury bonds anyway. It would take at least a decade of construction everywhere, and we don’t have the workforce and government regime China does to get things done. (Just think how China would have handled Boston’s Big Dig. It would have been done four times over—once to create the roads and another three times to fix the shoddy workmanship.)

But most importantly, we would have to change the way we live in a really big way. It would be hard. But if there’s anything I’ve learned in my life abroad, it’s that Americans on the whole don’t want to change the way they live. They want their hamburgers and French fries but they want to be thin anyway. They don’t want to give up their clothes dryers or dishwashers to save energy.

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Unfortunately, most of the existing bus systems, and many of the metros, are considered seedy and sketchy. We shouldn’t start with the decade-long, multi-billion dollar revolutionary transportation project; we should start putting money toward revamping the systems that already exist so that people buses and metros can become comfortable parts of our routine and take it from there.

And then maybe we can target the clothes dryers.

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