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108 braids... the devotional representation of a sacred Tibetan number. Photo by Rebecca Thom, China Semester.

Daily Commutes

Recently, during a commute to work, I heard a loud bang to my right. I turned to find two tipped motorbikes and two men sprawled on the ground, one with bloodied knees. I braced myself for the argument I was sure would ensue. However, there was no fight, no frustrated Chinese equivalent of, “what the h*ll man?”, not even a few mumbled curses. Instead, the men stood and hastily brushed themselves off. Being sure to avoid eye contact, each man mounted his respective bike and zipped away as if nothing happened.

Upon arrival in Kunming, one of the first things that I noticed was the sea of electric motorbikes that fills the streets. These motorbikes are remarkable not only due to their sheer number, but also because of the eclectic assortment of items that they tow: carts precariously balancing 30 bowls filled with goldfish, floral wedding displays, entire breakfast stands etc. Typically straddled by one to three passengers, the bikes are small enough to dart between cars at intersections and to squeeze through seemingly infinitesimal gaps. However, this agile quality of the bikes was a large source of frustration when I first started biking in Kunming. I winced each time I was brushed by a motorbike trying to squeeze through these gaps or forced to slam on my brakes to avoid the drivers darting between vehicles. Were there no right-of-way laws? I felt that everyone just pulled onto the street without looking or caring about cutting me off. I arrived at my destinations feeling embittered and annoyed with the entire population of Kunming.

As I rode away from the aforementioned accident, there was one thought that I couldn’t shake: those men seemed more embarrassed than angry. With this in mind, I resolved to pay closer attention to the behavior of my fellow commuters. During the rest of my journey, I did not witness a single disapproving shake of the head, a curse, or even a twitch of vexation in an eye. When those around me were cut off, they simply veered around the obstruction and continued on unfazed.

I am irked by behavior that frankly no one else seems to even notice. In Kunming, it is not considered rude to cut someone off, it is simply a part of the driving culture; so why do I project my suburban American preconceptions onto it? There is no logical reason for me to be peeved by these momentary pauses in my journey, they aren’t personal affronts.

And, with that, it dawns on me: mindset is everything. I shouldn’t be frustrated with Kunmingers, but rather attempt to emulate their attitudes and accept that we are all cogs in this bustling network, each trying to arrive at our destinations as quickly as possible. There are indeed right-of-way laws, just not the ones I’m used to—you must yield to whoever gets to the spot first.

During the initial month of travel in China, our instructor Ming introduced us to terms for the different mindsets that one can be in during any given situation: “Growth Mountain,” “Panic Cliff,” and “Comfort Valley”. Ming explained that it’s ideal to be on “Growth Mountain”, a mindset in which you have an optimistic attitude towards situations and try to learn from them, as often as possible. Although I do not believe that these terms are applicable to every situation, I do agree that changing your mentality is not only feasible, but invaluable.

I have found this tool of actively changing my attitude to be most useful not in extremely stressful situations, but rather in overtly mundane ones. For example, the only outcome of feeling impatient while waiting in line is grumpiness. Although many of us like to believe that the Force is with us, in actuality you have no control over the length of the line. So, why not use this waiting time productively?

Now I embrace the Chinese biking method. I spend my commutes appreciating this organized chaos, rather than hating it. The streets of this bustling metropolis constitute an ecosystem teeming with bicycles, busses, pedestrians, taxis, and everything in between. Motorbikes trailblaze—driving backwards in the bike lanes, forwards in the bus lanes, and occasionally sideways on the sidewalk. Although not as brash as the bulk of my fellow commuters, I now find it liberating to take each obstruction in stride and weave my way through the procession. The roads rhythmically ebb and flow with the changes of stop lights. Vehicles surge from nooks and crannies to join the collective rush of traffic in which each body navigates at a distinct pace, steadily bouncing or barreling its way through the streets. I finally have the mental space to notice new things, such as the fact that, to my dismay, the source of the familiar American ice cream truck tune is in fact Kunming’s garbage trucks.

Being that I spend over an hour a day biking, simply changing my attitude towards this one small aspect of my routine has vastly improved my quality of life here in Kunming. Who knew a figurative mountain could have such a literal impact?