In Short: Alienating.
I felt like ET the two times in my life I had to learn how to walk on a sidewalk in another country. Experiencing myself as the one out of step due to a vastly different sense of personal space was a shock.
I taught in China for seven years. After arriving in the small (for China) southern university town, it was a month before I figured out why I was perpetually tense while walking around — I had an inappropriate presupposition about what the space directly in front of me could or would occupy within the next five seconds.
A local would walk past me and then pop right in front of me so I was almost on their heels, forcing me to hunt frantically for where to place my descending foot.
Gradually it dawned on me that it might be smart to simply watch how the Chinese walk. So one afternoon, I sat on a bench in the lily-pad park of the Buddhist temple beside my university grounds. What I then perceived on the two sidewalks lining the roadway was more of a dance. No one ever moved in a straight line. Then it hit me: I was anticipating at least two feet of right-of-way directly ahead, as I’d learned in Canada when walking — and bicycling, and driving.
Finally, I understood why my brother had had to teach his fiancée from Hong Kong how to drive on Toronto freeways and not leave angry drivers in her wake! Learning how to step the Chinese dance was the only cultural clash I had there, as I was already so used to the food and folk in the Chinatown of my home turf.
However, my internal orientation lesson wasn’t over.
I also taught in Russia for another seven years, and again the only cultural clash I had was walking on Muscovite sidewalks. A local would charge out of a foyer onto the sidewalk without looking first before throwing the door wide open. If someone catches it full frontal, too bad!
The sidewalks are uppity and down-ity according to how each concrete slab has weathered winters. You hop as you can and if someone is coming the other way you deviate at the last second. And yes, they drive like that as well — and hop the curb to park on the sidewalk right in front of you if there’s no space on the road. And if there’s no space on the sidewalks due to cars, one walks down the centre of the street, as in the accompanying photo which I took in 2012, aiming at a back tower of the Kremlin walls which was just down the street from where I lived.
In both cultures, I learned, along with no right-of-way there is also no walk-to-the-right norm. Passing is determined by toe point, and if you’re a Russian woman with those amazing high heels in which she can slide down icy snow heaps while laughing and singing, you take no nonsense from any other pedestrian — as your flashing eyes indicate. A Chinese person, on the other hand, will have the head and eyes turned away in passing, giving personal space that way even if only six inches distance is between the passers-by.
And no one I ever noticed got annoyed — except this fuming Torontonian with the imprinted instinct from a far less crowded urban setting.
Marion lives now (again) in Toronto, but has also read Randy while living in Xiamen and Moscow as a professor of history at universities there. Students taught her more than she them.
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