Rules and not-rules

China is extremely safe and full of cameras everywhere — but the irony is that still people break the rules all the time. Some of these are laws, but most are just rules or norms.

For example, some people (and I emphasize: some) are loud in the very early morning, at like 6 o’clock. Others, in public places watch short videos at full volume or call on speaker mode. People smoke inside buildings (especially staircases and toilets). Grandparents let their grandkids pee in public places, like subway stations or parks. People litter or don’t clean up after their pets. When it rains, seniors here will walk their dogs in the underground parking garage, and you need to be careful where you set foot.

I can go on for a while. Drivers exit the highway at the very last moment, so they avoid queueing up on the exit lane — but they block not only the exit lane but also cause a traffic jam on the main highway. Others don’t use their signal light. Zebra crossings aren’t respected, neither are bicycle lanes. Cars park there and motorbikes use it to avoid traffic on the lane that they should be using. Scooter drivers speed on the sidewalk. Everything on two wheels also drives against traffic or jumps the red light. Fully healthy people drive those three-wheeled cars made for disabled people. People cut the queue — any queue — or squeeze to enter the subway carriage before people have exited.

And this list goes on.

For all of this, it’s only some people that do this — not all. But it’s also not true that nobody does these things. In fact, the above behavior is more common in China than it is in the Netherlands, not just because there are more people.

People will say ‘Just don’t care about that’. (The same advice offered when colleagues — managers from other departments — are being ridiculously mean.)
But that advice is very hard to follow.

Cities like Shanghai are so large, that the police can’t enforce everything, and actually, the offenses are only minor. You can protest repeat offenders, but do you want to make that effort? Plus, many things you can’t protest. My upstairs neighbor plays the hulusi every weekend day, it drives me crazy. But it’s his damn right. So I can either go outside for a trip (which is good to do anyway), or play piano or heavy metal music depending on my mood.

For the other offenses listed above, I think we Dutch people are so engrossed with justice or what is fair, what is the norm, that we forget that perhaps it doesn’t matter that much.

I used to hate this, because in the Netherlands, people will critique others, for instance, if someone puts their shoes on the seat in the train, or puts out the garbage too early. This social policing helps maintain those norms — and it could work well anywhere, if enough would participate.

But in China, the stance is more to let others alone. There are just too many people. Neither do I want to be some Gandhi, I don’t want to be the change I want to see in the world. I just want to be happy, not get myself frustrated about these things.

So it’s better to translate ‘Don’t care’ to yourself that rules that are not being enforced, are not rules. So nobody’s really breaking them. Yeah, you can smoke on the toilet, despite what the sticker on the wall says. That also means that you can do it. There’s freedom in it. I’m not saying you should pee on the subway station, but:

  • You can cut the queue when others cut the queue (and are not called out for it)
  • You can park your car anywhere (as long as there is no security camera)
  • You can watch a movie on full volume even late at night if you want to
  • You can also ride against the traffic on your bike or scooter, or ride on the pavement

I have also jumped plenty of red lights or reversed against the traffic on bicycle lanes when it suited me. I go full 入乡随俗 and also merge onto the exit lane last moment now. Waiting is useless when the queue gets longer at the front.

Do it, and remember it when you see others frustrate you. These are just the rules (no rules). Play by them, use them. Or, it’s like the line we used to say in online games, when someone complained about one class being too strong compared to other classes: “All is fine, learn to play.”