I was in a conversation today about the differences between cultures. For example, the things that make a city in one country different from a city in another. Not the differences you can see simply by looking at people – styles of dress, cuisineim, advertising signs – those are obvious, but they are not the most interesting differences.
No, I mean the differences inside the heads of the people. You find out after awhile that the people walking around Mumbai or São Paulo or Tokyo are generally experiencing a very different reality from the people in New York. The unspoken rules are different, the tacit understandings on the street or in the metro.
One of the ways this shows itself is in the negotiation between pedestrians and traffic. In São Paulo the cars don’t slow down for pedestrians. As an American friend of mine once said the first time he visited, there is only one rule of etiquette between pedestrians and drivers in São Paulo: “The fender is harder than your leg.”
In Mumbai something entirely different is going on. In most of the city there are no traffic lights. Pedestrians cross the street right into the middle of traffic, while the cars just drive around them, zooming along at high speed without ever slowing down. Yet there seems to be a general equality between the two forces. Somehow everybody manages to get where they are going – the pedestrians streaming across the busy roadway, the cars along it – without any collisions. The first time I was there, it took me quite a while, with a lot of advice and encouragement from highly amused bystanders, to figure out how to cross the street. But eventually I got the hang of it.
But perhaps my most dramatic and surprising experience with traffic culture shock occurred the first time I visited Tokyo. I was in the heart of Shibuya – roughly the equivalent of New Yorks Times Square – perhaps a block or two from Shibuya Station. It was a lovely night, and thousands upon thousands of Japanese surged along the busy crowded sidewalks, in a scene that seemed very familiar to a New Yorker – although on a somewhat more massive scale. I felt right at home.
I flowed along with the vast crowd, nearing the busy and broad intersection. In front of me the massive throng was streaming across the avenue. Just as I was getting to the intersection, the traffic lights started to change.
And then something extraordinary happened. By the time the lights had finished changing, there were no pedestrians at all in the street before me. Those people who had not yet gotten to the curb while the lights were changing had simply stopped dead in their tracks, before stepping off the curb.
To a boy from New York, this was completely astonishing. New Yorkers don’t stop for red lights, unless there is imminent danger of being run over. And drivers know this, so they expect random pedestrians to be dashing across the intersection at any opportunity.
But to see thousands of pedestrians coming to a complete standstill at the same moment, with not even one foot stepping off the curb, this to me was a great miracle. I could not have been much more surprised if Jesus himself had descended down from the sky in a top hat and tails, and performed a song and dance routine from “Hello Dolly”.
And in that moment I understood, standing there in that eerily law abiding crowd, that I was far from home.