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Driving in China Lea Mei Interview Discussion

Since many of our readers look forward to receive their driver’s permit or license, we thought we would ask Lea Xu, who returned with her family in 2008 to live and work in China, about her driving experiences there. Below is an excerpt of our interview:

Mei:  I understand you only recently obtained your Chinese driver’s license, so you didn’t have one for almost 3 years while living in China.  Can you tell us why you waited to do so?

Lea: (laughing) Well, it took me that long to get up enough courage to drive the streets of Guangzhou on my own!!!    Seriously, driving in China has different rules, and the rhythm and non-verbal communication in driving is very distinct from those habits and customs in the US.   Louie, my husband, jumped in right away, obtaining a driver’s license within weeks of arriving here.  I however, waited until early this year.  Of course, I’ve been busy, but also the change of driving habits is so great that it was nice to take time to adjust to everything.

Mei:  I understand that one of the distinctions between US and China drivers is how they use and perceive the use of the car horn?  

Lea:  Oh, yes definitely. In China, pushing on the horn is more like friendly chatter to say “I’m here”.  Hello.  Yes, still here.”   So, a Chinese driver may push on the horn maybe 20 times in one minute.  Of course, this is very unnerving to the US driver, who only uses the horn in cases of urgent situations or eminent danger.  So the process of reprogramming one’s mind and thoughts about just that one aspect is a huge change and can be very exhausting to listen to for the American mind.  I am now pretty used to it, but it also bothered me when first returning here in 2008 also. 

Mei:  And, of course, there is the difference in space and closeness to pedestrians and the general traffic rules. 

Lea:  Yes, the hardest adjustment for American drivers is the “rules”.  Just like driving in the states, there are rules to follow and they are typically the same.  But the problem is not everyone follows the rule.  It makes extremely difficult especially when there are so many cars on the road and they are getting so close to each other.  Of course you have to watch pedestrians (people could cross the street in the middle of nowhere or anywhere), bikes and “crazy drivers”.  The public bus usually gets first “privilege” to change lanes.  In other words, you have to be very careful and not turn to the other lane when the bus is driving “over” you as you might accidently bump to the car next to you, since no car will let you in even though the speed limit is lower.  One thing I did find though, after driving in Guangzhou for half a year, I am driving much more smoothly in the States. 

Mei:  What happens in the case of a traffic accident with just minor or no injuries?  Is that pretty similar to the U.S.? 

No, that is also quite different.  Although there is an insurance policy to cover the accident, it is still more a bargaining type of experience.   In the US, one typically simply exchanges insurance information and follows up to settle the financial part of the matter at a later time.  In China, there is a negotiation right in the street until there is a general idea of the financial resolution to be made. So, for example, once, when Louie experienced an accident about 1 ½ years ago, he had to interrupt his plans and stop and negotiate with the other driver.  The other driver wanted to know a lot of information about Louie, such as where he lived, etc., so he could try to negotiate the most money for the car repairs. It doesn’t seem right to pay more for repairs, based on what neighborhood you live or don’t live in is my thinking.  It usually takes longer to wait for the insurance people comes and take pictures while you stand in the middle of the road and watch cars pass by you. 

Mei: What is the minimum driving age in China?
Lea:  It is 18 and most young people that age do not obtain a driver license at that time.  It is growing, but use of a car in the average China household is not as common as it is in the US. 

Mei: Do you anticipate that your oldest daughter, will learn to drive in the US or China first?  And, what age do you think that would be?
Lea:   Selena will learn to drive in the US first when she turns 16.  I think she will enjoy driving in the states and of course safety is the most important thing for young driver.  I cannot imagine a new 16 year-old driver driving in China.  That could be a challenge not only for the child but also for the parentsJ!


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