I Drive Like a What?
Monday, October 18, 2010
Would you think that someone who was born and raised in America but lived oversees for only four years would experience culture shock upon return? I wouldn’t have. I guess I was expecting a little adjustment time, but nothing as complex as it has been. I’m not sure if it’s just being back in America that’s making me experience this. It could be that I moved to Texas, my first time in this state other than passing through for a conference once in Austin, and maybe I am simply figuring out what it means to live in this big, steak-eating, gun-carrying, truck-driving Lone-star state. Truthfully, I like it here so far. It’s not much different from anywhere else in America from a big picture perspective. The stores and restaurants are mostly the same, the interstates feel familiar — for the most part, America is America. It’s the details that really stand out. For one thing, there are a lot more Mexican restaurants here than in other states I’ve visited.
Coming from the fast-paced, high-rise, densely populated, reserved culture of Asia, my strongest, first impression of South Texas is, “Where are all the people?” There are no people! All I see are cars. The little people are all insulated in their glass bubbles. In some places I don’t even see many cars. It’s almost like there’s a city-wide party and everyone is attending but me. I often ask my husband, “Is there some event going on that I don’t know about?” We’re just so used to seeing a whole lot of people everywhere, at all hours, every day. The lack of people is really noticeable to me. Then, when I do see a car, it’s usually a giant, larger-than-life truck barreling towards me in the rear view mirror. Living in a country with small cars and narrow roads has really altered my view of what a “normal” sized car looks like. I never felt afraid to drive in Tokyo or Seoul, but Texas scares me to death.
Today I dropped my husband off at work and drove back to the hotel on a minimally utilized highway to avoid the interstate. (I never would have avoided the Interstate before.) Because this road I chose is not busy, pick-up trucks usually go about 80mph in this 60mph zone. This morning I found myself alone on a stretch of the highway with one other car. The driver was going at a slower pace than most. I thought to myself, “Now this is my speed. I am totally comfortable driving alongside this person who is going a reasonable speed.” I felt happy. “Maybe not everyone has to barrel down the highway here. Some people are, thankfully, more sensible.”
I wasn’t always such a slow driver. I used to drive fast all the time on the highways of Nashville, but this is one thing that I guess really rubbed off on me in Asia. The speed limit rarely exceeds 80 kilometers at its highest, which is about 50 mph. On open interstate roadways, it sometimes goes up to 100 km, that’s about 62mph. In most places we drive 25 to 40 kilometers, that’s 15mph and 25mph respectively. That probably sounds unbearably slow, but with the narrow roads, daredevil motorcyclists, and fearless pedestrians, it never seemed slow, and sometimes 40 km was even too fast. Plus, everything is so densely packed that things are very close to one another distance-wise. Here it feels like I drive f-o-r-e-v-e-r to get somewhere. In the same amount of time, 15 minutes, I drive around 25 miles. In 15 minutes in Seoul I could drive about 6 miles.
So, today, I had a shocking revelation. I’m still sorting out how I feel about this. As I drove alongside my peaceful roadway companion, feeling happy, I turned my head, eager to give a nod to convey my approval and a wink as if to say, “Hey, we’ve both got the right idea.” To my utter shock, the driver was an 80-year-old woman with an oxygen mask. I did a double take to make sure.
I guess living in Asia has changed me in many ways. One is that now I drive like an old lady, literally.