Culture Guides

World Anthropology at the Crossroads

Cultural comparison based on behavior at crosswalks.

Go! Go! Damnit!

When anthropologists approach a foreign culture in the hope of gaining some understanding of the values and nature of the people who live there, they generally consider a number of perspectives. Some examine how the universal rites of passage are observed, such as marriage and death. Others attempt to draw conclusions from the artistic achievements of the society or their recreational past-times.

They are all wrong.

The only reliable way to understand a culture at a glance is by watching how they cross the road. Consider. At the road crossing we have all the ingredients for a true insight into the human condition. There is conflict of interests, inequality and occasionally fatal violence. It’s a wonder that no soap opera or sitcom has yet been based on life around a zebra crossing.

Crossing the road is such a routine function that we barely pause to give it a moment’s thought. We put such trust in the cars that slow down for us that we rarely consider the statistical likelihood of one of them being a homicidal maniac. Would you walk calmly past someone with a large baseball bat swung back and ready to strike? Then why be at ease strolling in front of a car whose engine is still running?

In fact, in much of the world no driver would even think of stopping for a cause so inconsequential as a pedestrian. In Colombia it’s common practice to run the first half of the road even if there’s nothing comingĀ­. If a car does suddenly swerve into sight you have that much more chance of making it to the curb alive.

In Iran the traffic was so intense that even a jaywalking junky like me had to be helped across the road. With a young guy taking my arm to guide me across, all I could think of were old ladies, boy scouts and good deeds for the day.

In India the roads are so bad that most of the cars and scooters are slowed down by the potholes in the road. However the flow of traffic is so random that danger can strike from any direction. I’ve lost count of the number of times I was almost crippled by neglecting to look both directions when crossing a one way street. Most Indians prefer to save a few rupees on petrol by going against the flow of the traffic rather than drive all the way around. No surprise then that while India has 1% of the world’s traffic, it scores 6% of the accidents. And nobody but nobody is insured.

In Thailand those crossing the road gather together to form a kind of critical mass. Here the cars and bikes run faster and their mirrors are used only for styling hair and squeezing spots. Your only chance of getting across is to team up with enough pedestrians to form something like a human shield. Only then will the amphetamine-crazed drivers take any notice of you. As in India, a belief in reincarnation doesn’t exactly lend itself to road safety either.

All of this caused me some occasion for comedy when I passed though Europe this year. I was in Belgium and still couldn’t grasp the notion that cars would stop at a zebra crossing. I and the driver would stare each other out, both of us stubbornly trying to give way. I was actually knocked down on one occasion when both of us just went ahead at the same time.

In Korea one is obliged to wait up to ten minutes by the side of the road before the green light comes on. Jaywalking is unheard of here and so every time i just cut across a crowd of Koreans followed me. Their looks on their faces were priceless when they realized I’d duped them into breaking a bylaw.

In Singapore there is serious legislation to deter jaywalking. Traffic police are empowered to force the offender to perform a series of squat thrusts, push ups and star jumps to make him feel the shame of his anti-social ways.

I read somewhere that the average individual spends up to two weeks of his life waiting to cross the road. That’s the kind of statistic that leaves me feeling homicidal. But then i remember the traffic light i once saw in Delhi. The red light came on and lit up the word “RELAX!”