For the past several months one word has spread through this city we now call home. Civilized.
A mandate has come from the top; “civilizing” the cities of this country. According to local officials this word means that people must start to obey traffic laws, parking guidelines, and public transport rules. Furthermore, people must now throw trash in trash cans, not ride bikes on the opposite side of the road, and cross streets at designated crosswalks. You might be surprised to know this but the vast majority of people do not do these things on a regular basis. Thus, this campaign.
On paper it all sounds really nice but in reality it's all crap. And, it's really rubbing me the wrong way. I know that people have different cultural backgrounds and I’ve had to get used to many different cultures while growing up. I have my own culture, being a minority back in the States. But, lately I have been struggling here.
There are signs that say, “Civilized Kunming” everywhere here in the city. I mean everywhere! Every possible building wall, billboard, and store window. Gigantic signs all over the place. Flags hanging on poles that say, “Civilized Kunming”. Posters in every elevator. Public service announcements playing on loop on buses, taxis, hospitals, and airport. Recorded messages about obeying traffic laws playing on loud speaker at busy intersections. And, official "volunteers" attending crosswalks and traffic lights at selected busy intersections. Many busy intersections have at least 10-12 police officers and volunteers with whistles and megaphones yelling and screaming at walkers, bikers, scooters, and cars. There are volunteers that lower a pole when the red light is on to stop vehicles from running the light. The pole is then lifted when the light turns green.
At first it seemed like something out if a sci-fi movie. Within a few months the city was overtaken by government volunteers and police officers. All street sellers (fruit, vegetables, clothes) disappeared. Streets cleaned. After a while I did see the benefits of such an effort. It was safer (as a scooter driver). I didn't have to be as “on alert” when driving in the bike lane because there were 5 foot tall fences put up everywhere, throughout the city, dividing the bike lane and the sidewalk. This prevented pedestrians from walking right in front of me while driving. You may not believe it but people do not look before crossing…almost ever! It is common practice to walk right into traffic without looking. Worse off, most are looking down at their cell phones. It’s like the movie Wall-E. No one pays attention to anything here besides their cell phone.
I also appreciated that people stopped at cross walks when they were suppose to, which helped me not run them over or run into other bikes, especially on rainy days.
Rental bikes (all over town) now have designated parking areas on the sidewalks rather than thrown all over the city, sometimes on the street, sometimes in the bushes, sometimes in the bike/scooter lanes.
However, as time went on, people started to realize that they only need to obey the rules at certain times. We call it “civilized” by day, and chaos by night. Only when police officers were around from 9-5 pm (on non-rainy days, because if it rains they stay in) did people need to follow the rules. Only when officials were around did people need to follow the rules. Any other time? Back to the same old thing. Things got ugly fast, and so did my liking to this culture.
One day I was taking Fiona to school, I turned into the entrance of the apartment complex looking for a place to park. To my surprise the marked area for bike parking had been closed off. So, I went to park where at the car lot was when a guard stopped me. He told me to park inside the apartment complex, I told him I didn't have a key to open the gate because I didn't live there. He told me to go to the gate and tell the guards there to open the gate. I did. Then the guard there said “no”, that the only way to open the gate is if I had a key. I told him, “Ok, you won't let me park outside and you won't like me inside, how will I take my child to school?" At which point the guard reluctantly opened the gate. Later that day, I went to pick Fiona up from school, with the same guard there. The same thing happened. Once I got inside I was able to speak to the director of the preschool. She explained that she talked with the guard and found out that the reason for this change was because officials from the capital city (i.e., B-ijing) were here for the next few days to conduct checks on how well the city had followed its “Civilized” campaign. She said I should temporarily deal with it because things would change right after the officials completed their check. I just couldn't believe it. You could easily solve this problem by painting in an official parking area for bikes. Or, have a “loading zone” or “temporary parking”. Really not that difficult! Instead of a long-term solution this culture is many times about short-term fixes that gets you out of trouble. There’s not thinking outside the box. There’s always fear of getting in trouble.
You see, these changes are just temporary fixes to a bigger, long-term issue. The problem is to the majority of people here it is fine to not follow the rules, it is ok to break the rules (in all aspects)…as long as you don’t get caught!
I know I know, this may be the start of bigger changes (many years) down the road. Change takes time. However, it’s been a hard week. I need your prayers. I want to continue to love the people here, to see them the way our Father seems them, to pursue them the way He does.
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**Please do not share the post with anyone. We were hesitant in posting this. However, we feel it's important to share our frustrations and prayer requests to those that continue to encourage us and support us.**