What It’s Like to
Walk a Foreign Sidewalk

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in ,

In Short: Alienating.

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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.

Photo: Russian street scene by Marion in Moscow.

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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23 thoughts on “Walk a Foreign Sidewalk”

  1. What a fun WILT! I remember feeling similarly when I lived abroad. Sometimes it’s the little things that are the “big” things when you’re trying to acclimate to new culture.

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  2. Every country has its way of driving, as well as walking on sidewalks. Actually, it varies from one major city to another city within the same country, and probably each state.

    As demographics change, the pedestrians do as well. My home town had the elderly living on one side and everybody else on the other, and if you walked with the elderly, you traveled like a snail.

    Worse yet was trying to drive on the streets where they refused to stop at a corner for a light, but drivers had no choice. That was South Florida, back in the day.

    There was a week in Taiwan where traffic was impossible. If you had to take a taxi, you kept your eyes shut. The people were amiable on foot, but behind the wheel was another matter.

    Then there was Paris. I did not walk much on the first trip but made up for that on my last. A taxi is hard to find, but the city is small enough to walk. We walked through a park from the Louvre to the Eifel Tower, which did not appear that far away, but we had to pass through a park with no grass, only sand, and by mid-May, it was hot with no place to hydrate.

    Living there may be a different matter, but I have noticed that nowhere is fun if the roads are crowded.

    If you want to see madness driving, try a South American city like Lima, Peru. Vehicles of all shapes, sizes, and roadworthiness abound, and you have to wonder when a car is coming towards you if they will stop in time. They usually do, but what would you expect of drivers who travel the edge of a mountain on a ten-foot-wide road?

    And, of course, there are some countries where people drive on the wrong side of the road.

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    • When we were in Lima a couple of years ago (fortunately on a tour van and I wasn’t driving) I couldn’t believe how 4-5 lanes of traffic were all trying to make a left turn onto a 3-lane road. Madness! Sheer Madness!

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      • They appear to drive crazily, but as close as they come, accidents seem to be rare. The streets of Lima are old, and the vehicles vary from horse-drawn to motorcycles and then to regular cars, all on the street at the same time.

        I have been a passenger, not a driver, but I find it’s easiest to ride with your eyes closed.

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        • You three are fortunate to bave traveled the globe south of the equator. In my imagination i figured there was just more space everywhere under the Southern Cross but i guess the reality of big cities holds true worldwide.

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    • Not so much driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, more a case of driving on the ‘other’ side of the road. One third of the world drives on the left.

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  3. When I worked at a youth hostel in Amsterdam in the late 1970s, I learned to tell where people came from before they even opened their mouths. Somewhat by clothes, but personal space was the biggest factor. And yes, New York vs S. California vs the Midwest.

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  4. Reminds me of walking the sidewalk in a town in India and learning the hard way to watch out for where the locals did their “business”. Yikes!

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  5. So perceptive and entertaining!

    I didn’t notice that Moscow sidewalks were chunky, probably because I’d been so used to small-town Mexico. But definitely Moscow sidewalk potholes, which became dangerous when camouflaged by snow.

    As for personal sidewalk space, try downtown Vancouver, or any busy transit hub here — you’d be lucky to get a couple of inches.

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  6. I spent most of 1969 as a soldier in Saigon. Watching the Vietnamese drive was interesting, to say the least. I figured out (having spent a week in France visiting my sister just before reporting for service) that they had learned to drive from their colonizers, the French. At uncontrolled intersections, French drivers look to the right to see if there is someone who has the right of way; if not they whiz right through, never looking to the left. Works well when everybody follows the pattern.

    The Vietnamese apparently ignored the part about looking to the right, and would just zoom into the intersection, swerving at the last second, if necessary.

    Motorcylces routinely drove on the sidewalk when traffic was heavy, leaving pedestrians to walk on the dirt strip between sidewalk and road.

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    • What i gathered in East Asia is that anything is accepted as requiring attention only if it is in the front, so looking to the left and/or right wasn’t considered necessary even in a fast car. I also kept my eyes closed a lot as a passenger!

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  7. I was in China for three years, several years ago. I tripped over my feet trying to figure out where to go too.

    I was in a big city, and although I didn’t go through as much culture shock as I had expected to (that’s another story) I was struck by two things:

    1) sense of personal space (or lack thereof) — people were pretty much right next to you everywhere. Lines also disintegrated into giant blobs a lot.

    2) people generally didn’t care at ALL about you — they ignored anything short of getting in their face or making a huge fuss at them, often even in customer service situations… Restaurants at odd hours were the weirdest… Or if they became a friend you were like family to them! It was like American big city culture dialed to extreme.

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    • I eventually had three Chinese ‘families’ and that was the sweet core of living there ~ right, Kim? Once this community started to happen, the lack of personal space stopped being an irritant.

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  8. When I visited Iquitos, Peru, I was fascinated by the beautiful ornate grillwork covering so many windows. I was informed that the square holes in most of the sidewalks were the previous homes of the metal grates that locals had used as resources to make those grills.

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  9. I was in the UK and the sidewalk wasn’t a problem, but I can’t tell you how many times I nearly got hit by cars trying to cross the street. You have no idea how ingrained habits are in how you check for traffic before you cross until it gets flipped. For me at least it is usually a quick near side of the road traffic glance, far side, then again towards the near side oncoming and stepping off. In the US, that is a left, right, left look. Cars come up pretty damn fast and if you have that sequence in the opposite direction you are stepping out as you are looking the wrong way. I was sure it wouldn’t be a problem. Wrong. Good thing I never had to drive it for the month I was there. All my reflexes were wrong. A London cab ride was like a roller coaster except the freak out was left and right rather than up and down.

    A tourist getting hit is a common thing in the U.K. Much less of a problem in the U.S. with Brit tourists, but I’ve seen it here …maybe only once, though. -rc

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  10. Now I understand why my American husband has a problem walking in Singapore. I’d be walking through crowds, then suddenly realise he’s not beside me any longer because he got stuck in a ‘dance’ with a local. The Seattle native is annoyed because he had the right-of-way, the local is annoyed because the foreigner didn’t have the sense to move out of the way. Thankfully he’s getting better at it. Although maybe it’s more that there’s less crowds now due to Covid.

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  11. I was living outside Dublin for a year. My manager came to visit from NY for a week and we did the downtown tourist thing for a day. She was a step ahead of me when crossing the street, and yes, she looked the wrong way. Thankfully I was close enough to grab her collar and pull her back before she was hit.

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  12. I’m an American, living in the United States, and I am constantly amazed at how few people pay attention to anyone else on the sidewalk.

    Shoppers will just walk out of stores, without checking if someone else is in the way — and if there’s an accident, they will blame the person who was there first. Friends and families will walk side-by-side, regardless of whether there are two of them, or twelve. People will just stop to look at something or decide where to go, paying no attention to the fact that there are people behind them. And people will walk wherever they feel like walking. Hey! You drove here! We drive on the right! Walk on the right, too!

    Walk on foreign sidewalks? I’m 66 years old, and still trying to figure out how to navigate an American sidewalk unscathed.

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