Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo

Crossing Roads in Other Cultures

by | Dec 11, 2020 | Destinations, International, Travel and Education, Uncategorized

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Why did the chicken cross the road, riddle? The answer, “To get to the other side,” is probably accurate, and it’s most widely accepted. However, not very funny and sometimes difficult to do like crossing roads in other cultures

These are stories and memories that illustrate additional reasons for crossing the road, and yes, it was to get to the other side, but sometimes crossing roads in other countries was literally because I could…

Teaching and traveling abroad and lessons of crossing roads in other cultures

I have taught abroad in some pretty interesting places, and I must admit that one experience that stands out for me the most was the challenge of crossing roads in other countries. Thus the analogy of Why did the chicken cross the road.

The following examples give a little insight into the most mundane experiences turning into one of my most profound obstacles. First of all, understanding the challenge and nuances of crossing roads in other countries became something that actually empowered me in my quest to assimilate into these new and interesting places.

Familiarity with a place

I returned to Kuwait on September 2, 2010

Returning to Kuwait was quite different than the first time I arrived. Naively, I hadn’t expected there to be a big culture shock the first time I came. After all, I had traveled a lot. I thought I was prepared for any new living, work, and travel situation, but here is my take-away:

Don’t overestimate what you know in preparation for what you don’t know.


Danette Ulrich

From the moment I stepped off the plane, it was different from the previous year. This time my familiarity made it much more comfortable. Knowing where and how to catch a taxi, having a business card with the address of my home and school to give to the taxi driver, being a community member concerning my school and my job, having connections, and the security of a home to go to, etc… I found that I was eagerly looking forward to seeing friends and familiar faces. Thus I was blanketed with a calmness I didn’t have before. However, some of the excitement and anticipation of that first encounter of a new place was missing.

The weather, of course, was the same, “hot.” Seas of dust and sand were the same, “dusty and sandy.” My school and job were the same as the year before. The students and classes I had were mostly the same. Familiar faces were the same. Expressive smiles and greetings were appreciatively the same. It was going to be a good year,

Something new: Taxi drivers in Kuwait

The taxis and the drivers are not quite the same. Most taxis that I take on “the run” are usually run down, decorated with some individual, sometimes an ornate expression of the driver. Moreover, these shrines and decorations generally reflect whatever country the taxi driver is from. The cars themselves do have one standard and predictable theme, which is:

Will they make it to my destination?

Danette Ulrich

In my time in Kuwait, I had drivers from Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Most taxi drivers are exceedingly friendly, but occasionally you meet one who is very cranky. The traffic never improves their dispositions, nor the imposition of you need a ride from them.

I found that while in traffic, I could be happy experiencing “culture shock.” For one, it was sometimes easier not to be able to understand another language. For instance, if you encountered a driver who wasn’t happy for whatever reason, not understanding their tirade was less stressful. Had I been able to understand them, I might have reacted, so it can be freeing to ignore something you don’t understand.

On one occasion, I had a taxi driver yelling at me all the way from one of the outlying areas of the city to my apartment. Luckily, I finally talked him into stopping, and I walked the rest of the way home. Lesson learned, If you find a good driver you like, it is best to keep their number and use them whenever you can. Not only that, but the driving habits of some are completely absurd even on the “Kuwait driving scale,” which has its own acceptable degrees of craziness and speed. I remember a friend’s sage advice:

When you take a random taxi you better start praying!

Cher Mac

Why did the chicken cross the road and did he understand the unwritten rules of the road? What about chickens crossing roads in other cultures?

As crazy as the driving was in Kuwait, beyond taxi driver rage, I didn’t see a lot of the “road rage” that I experience in the U.S. Perhaps this is because many of the drivers are from somewhere else. They may be afraid of making a public fuss and being sent back to wherever they came from. Actually, I recently read an article in the U.K. Telegraph that Kuwait was targeting ex-pats who speed by deporting them. Yes, there is a lot of traffic, but the speeding cars can be very un-nerving whether you are in one or trying to cross the road. With that said, there does seem to be some method to the madness.

The drivers all seem to understand the same chaotic system, and they all follow the same rules for the chaos. You become a little desensitized and, your idea of normal is completely out the window. Ironically, you might find that you are relaxed in situations that would have caused you to bite off all your fingernails at home. Maybe it’s a form of surrender. Perhaps by tightly closing my eyes, I could be in denial because, the fact is, there is little you can do, and as my friend said,

Kuwait Traffic Photo AlmoStsr

Being a pedestrian…and crossing roads in other countries

Being a pedestrian is quite different from riding in taxi’s but can cause equal anxiety. When crossing roads in other countries as a pedestrian, I was consistently reminded of the cartoons I watched as a kid. I remembered one in particular where the guy barely stuck his foot off the sidewalk in a barren environment, and suddenly, there were dozens of cars whizzing around him. Routine road crossing could be a real challenge in many places. To illustrate, I found myself on some occasions standing and watching a never-ending parade of cars speeding in tandem with no break in sight. I vividly remember standing at a round-a-bout for 20 minutes trying to get across. I would dash out to dash back to safety. It was like being in a real-life game of “Frogger.”

Hanoi, Vietnam

While traveling in Vietnam with my friend, Ann, “crossing roads in other cultures” took on an entirely new meaning. For example, our stay in Hanoi was a new but equally challenging effort. Was I the chicken? And, Why did the chicken cross the road? Also, do I really need to cross the road? What is so important on the other side of the road? These are questions I asked myself.

Amazingly to me, there were waves of thousands of motorbikes racing down the roads. Some of these bikes would have families with a pyramid of 5 family members precariously balancing one on top of another, reminding me of a real-life game of Jenga or perhaps a Dr. Seuss book. This frightening distraction aside, there was never a break in this massive, mechanical organism of motorbikes, bicycles, cars, trucks, me the pedestrian, and the occasional chicken. As far as a problem-solving challenge, it seemed to have no solution. These bikes were not stuck in a traffic jam. Instead, they continued to move as if they were in a race.

If I had been on a desert island and across the street was a rescue ship, I would have been that chicken, and I would have wanted to get to the other side. However, I’m pretty sure I would not have made it.

Help arrives

After watching me for some time, the doorman from our hotel came up behind me, took my arm, and calmly walked me across the street telling me to not stop, hesitate or turn back. It was exactly how I imagined Moses feeling when the Red Sea parted. Tentative but trusting.

The scooters zoomed around me as if I were the obstacle in a video game. It was empowering and amazing! As a result of my previous hesitancy and fear, I had paralyzed myself, believing my fate would be the same unfortunate outcome of an indecisive squirrel. That being said, I hadn’t known the system. It wasn’t easy to trust myself, and I sure didn’t trust the drivers. Finally, It seemed an impossible task. However, as in most things in life, there was a solution when I was shown how to do it. Through this experience, I was starting to feel a little more confident that crossing roads in other countries could be done without trauma, physical or emotional. Either that or I was just lucky and overconfident.

traffic in Hanoi Vietnams
Hanoi Vietnam Traffic

Beijing, China

Beijing, China is a city of over 20.5 million people in the urban area alone. With this in mind, there were over 6000 people per sq kilometer and over 258 million cars as of 2019. Again, “crossing the road” became a new and different set of cultural norms and skills I did not have when I arrived there for my two-year stint. This once again became one of the greatest challenges in assimilating to my new environment. And again, my number one question: Not only why did the chicken cross the road but how?

Traffic in Beijing China

Crossing roads in other cultures: Beijing, China edition

By the time I arrived here, I knew there was a cultural system, and I just needed to unlock it. So, my tactic was to look for older women. They seemed to me to be the most industrious, incentivized, mission-oriented and savvy people in the society, and I was pretty sure no-one was going to “run them down.” That would have been “bad karma.” Covertly, I would look for them along the roads, walk up next to them, and with a nod of sisterhood as if we were embarking on some amazing journey together. I walked when they walked as close as comfortably possible, which in China is pretty darn close. Full disclosure, I had to discover this after being grabbed by the arm by someone’s granny and dragged at an impressive pace at least once. A final word on this, you can’t be shy, and complacency will not work.

Finally, you will find no time to second guess yourself or change your mind and retreat. The art and skill of crossing roads in other cultures require the knowledge that you need to go whenever everyone or someone else goes, and if you are meant to, you will arrive at your destination unscathed. Furthermore, sometimes even when you don’t need to “cross the road,” you might for the simple reason that you now know that you can. Another answer to Why did the chicken cross the road?

Tokyo, Japan

Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo is frequently referred to as the world’s busiest crosswalk. Hundred of pedestrians descend and hustle across this intersection every few minutes. During peak times, the changing traffic lights’ rhythmic pace signals the masses of people into orderly yet tsunami-like movement in multiple directions. This is a fascinating example of controlled chaos, and I’m not sure it could not happen with this degree of control and ease anywhere else in the world. To me, this dance of individuals actually represents Tokyo as the efficient and cutting-edge city it is. Here, ten lanes of traffic and five major crosswalks converge along a modern canyon of neon-colored buildings in the heart of Tokyo.

Three giant television screens mounted on the buildings facing the intersection flash all day, daring you to give them your full attention while the rest of the area is covered with lights, advertisements, and more lights. Likewise, every few minutes, it is like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. You would think these would all be a major distraction, and they probably are to the visitor, so be aware.

Tokyo Japan Shibuya Crossing

The Endless Movement

Shibuya Crossing Tokyo Japan photo by Danette Ulrich

To Sum it up

The following anecdotal story summed it up pretty well for me. I was teaching High School in Beijing, and during the summer, some students had gone to the U.S. to visit Colleges and Universities from the east to the west coast. When I asked Bonnie, “What was your favorite experience?” Expecting her response to be something predictable like the Statue of Liberty, The Golden Gate Bridge, Disneyland…, I was really bewildered when she said she liked the crosswalks.

As I thought about her response, ironically, it all came together. Maybe the reason the chicken crossed the road was that the flashing light said WALK.


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