Monday, November 26, 2007

Crazy Beijing Driver

Our car arrived in early November, so Bart drove it home and parked it in the driveway, where it sat forlornly, wondering why I never took it anywhere. Truth be told, I was a bit nervous at the idea of driving into downtown Beijing, because I wouldn’t know where I was going, I don’t have a Thomas Bros guide to Beijing, and I don’t know enough Chinese to ask for directions when I get hopelessly lost. There’s also the little fact that Beijing’s streets are clogged with traffic, and the main driving rules seem to be “ignore the guy behind you” and “if you can move into the space, it’s yours.”

So I started slowly, just driving around our little suburban neighborhood, where I know my way around so getting lost wouldn’t be a problem. And it was fine. Well, okay, the first time I drove to Shay’s school to take Aidan to the library, there was a slight mishap. You see, the spaces are a bit too small for a minivan. And you have to back in. And I have no depth perception. And there’s no space between the wall and the curb. So, yes, technically, I did back into the wall at Shay’s school. And yes, I guess that means I did get in my first Chinese car accident. But no I did NOT wreck the car, even if that’s how my husband prefers to characterize it. It was just a little scratch. Or two. Two-ish scratches, maybe.

Other than that little mishap, all went well. Still, I had no idea how to drive to the Embassy in an emergency, and I figured I needed to learn. Lucky for me, my friend Jen knows how to get there, but doesn’t have her car yet, so she agreed to talk me in if I’d take her in. One little thing, though. First, she needed to stop at an apartment complex a few blocks from the Embassy. So we agreed that I’d drive there with her directional assistance, and then we’d go park at the Embassy and walk to the Silk Market to do some Christmas shopping.

We made it in, on the Airport Expressway and the Third Ring Road. The Third Ring was packed with cars, so it took forever. I don’t know how my husband does the commute every day. Just getting the extra few blocks from the Embassy to the apartment took about thirty minutes. But we made it – such a sense of accomplishment when we found the building and got ourselves there without getting lost or hit. We were laughing on our way out, congratulating ourselves. At the edge of the driveway, we had two choices: pull into the closest lane, the one that looked as though it might curve right when we needed to go straight? Or pull into the farther one, which may or may not go straight – hard to tell because is disappeared behind a concrete barricade. After a split second decision, I chose to pull into the far lane.

Turns out the far lane isn’t a traffic lane at all – it’s a bike lane. I was now stuck in a bike lane, behind the world’s slowest sanlunche, ridden by an older guy lugging plastic jugs of something sloshy. To my right was the aforementioned concrete barrier. To my left was a metal barrier, meant to keep crazy drivers like me OUT if the bike lane. So we chugged along behind our three-wheeled friend, who was in no hurry to get those jugs anywhere. And we chugged. And chugged.

When we came to a light, we stopped behind him and debated how to get back into the traffic lanes. Jen, my law-abiding friend, looked at the red light and said, without hesitation, “run it!” With that encouragement, I pulled around jug guy, prayed for no oncoming traffic, and gunned it through the intersection.

We laughed about it all the way back to the Embassy, where the guards waved us in and we pulled over for the obligatory bomb check. Of course, I hadn’t driven the car in so long, I couldn’t remember how to open the engine compartment. After an embarrassing few moments, I found the latch, the search continued and we were cleared to enter the compound.

Unfortunately, one whole side of the street was shut down, so parking spaces were scarce. And did I mention I often have problems parking the not-so-minivan? But we found a space, near the visa section, and I pulled over. I wasn’t sure it was a space, though, given the look the Chinese policeman was giving me. So I got out and asked him, in English “Can I park here?”

He answered, in Chinese, “blah blah blah blah.”

So I switched to Chinese. “Ni hao,” I said, “uhhh… park…. Nar?”

Him: “blah blah blah.”

Me to Jen: “Jen, how do you say ‘can I park here?’”

Pause. We both think back to yesterday’s Chinese class.

Jen: “’may I’ is ‘ke yi.’”

Me to policeman: “ke yi… uhhhh… park… nar?” I point.

Policeman: “bu ke yi blah blah blah.”

Well. If “ke yi” means “may I?”, then “bu ke yi” means “you may not.” As to the “blah blah blah” part, who knows?

Resigned, I climbed back in and put the car in reverse. Just then I noticed a space right in front of the car that was parked in front of me. Literally ten feet away. So I rolled down the window and asked the police man “ke yi… uhhh…. Park my che…. Uhhh… nar?” I pointed at the space.

He nodded and answered “ke yi.”

Now, why he couldn’t have pointed at that space in the first place and saved us all a whole lotta “blah blah blahs,” I’ll never know. But I am happy to report that we did, finally, make it safely all the way to the Embassy that day. We parked, had lunch, did some shopping, got some coffee and even made it all the way back home without further incident. We were already halfway home, barreling down the Airport Expressway, when Jen casually mentioned that she wasn’t sure which exit we needed to take to get home. Uh, you might have wanted to mention that BEFORE you agreed to be the navigator, Jen. But no problem – that was the only thing I did know for sure, so we made it safely home.

For all I know, that bike rider is still meandering down his bike lane, a line of newbie cars with diplomatic plates snaking along behind, trying to find an escape route.

And now I can get to the Embassy. That’s a real accomplishment. Next up: learning to say “may I park here?” in Chinese.

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