Monday, August 1, 2011

Domestic Fight Terminal

A disagreement emerged while my brother and I were in line to check in for our flight from Lijiang to Kunming. It provided some further cultural education, and petty entertainment. We were right behind the person checking in when I noticed the airline employee behind the desk to my left getting quite agitated. He was about 5 and a half feet tall, skinny, with glasses. A customer in line said something to him that my brother later translated as: “What are you going to do about it?” The employee answered by bounding over the counter to charge him.

Last year, I had the frustrating choice between photographing a bear and getting away from him. Same situation here. Do I immediately start photographing the emerging fight, or get away? Tough call. There was no real threat to me. None of the combatants were anywhere near my size, and they fought comically badly, and my brother was there, and airports are famous for having cops everywhere. On the other hand, I didn’t think that it would be wise to get involved in a domestic squabble. It then would have become international, and they might have moved us to the international fight terminal.

So, after moving my bag and self further away, I dropped the bag and got my camera out as quickly as possible. Perhaps this might have been tacky, but they were the ones creating a spectacle in public, not me. And if anyone got annoyed, I would have said that I was trying to record it to help the police. By this time, a fair mob surrounded the combatants, and an innocent woman had been knocked down. She was fine, and no kids were threatened, so I was clear to snap the relatively weak photo shown below.

Earlier pix would not have been much better, though. I’ve seen more damaging fights between 7 year olds at Leisure Loft school. Any illusions or stereotypes about Chinese Kung Fu masters were dispelled. The combatants only slapped at each other and sort of moved with the crowd, which only intervened verbally. This included the police. Two cops were there pretty quickly. Why? They didn’t even touch the combatants. They seemed to kind of hope that the presence of an authority figure would quell the emerging drizzlestorm. It briefly did. But I was watching them both closely, and I commented to my brother that I wasn’t sure it was over, because one guy might be sandbagging until the crowd dispersed and he could try again. Sure enough, the defender went for an encore, charging the airport employee. Go! Get him! Flying side kick! Monkey style versus dragon style! But the guy sorta petered out when he got within striking range, and it again suffused to a bunch of yelling. No blood, guts, or glory. Both guys lost a lot of face, but only figuratively. I was on the verge of booing, but was pushing my luck enough with the camera.

People surrounding a chicken fight at Lijiang airport

The bus station in Kunming further highlit the different perspectives on security out here. I was in line to go through the security checkpoint. It looked much like an airport one, but with no trays. Should I just take out my laptop and put it directly on the conveyer belt? I started, but the security woman indicated not to bother. I then started fishing coins out of my pocket, which obviously annoyed her, and she shooed me through the metal detector. It went off. Then, I took my bag and left the security area. I noticed that the metal detector went off for absolutely everyone. The Dali bus station was identical. My brother explained that the point is to create the appearance of security, and allow someone can say they were following procedure. Hard to understand.

I later learned this actually constitutes great security. The bus stations in Lijiang and Yongshang also had metal detectors and X-ray screeners. They were turned off.

Police are also more focused on the appearance of stability and order than busting bad guys. Police always travel with their lights on but sirens off, so they can be seen and convey order. If no problems are reported to them, they will not go out of their way to nail anyone. Traffic violations in front of police are routine and casual. There are different types of police for routine traffic versus catching illegal street vendors. These vendors travel in packs, and are great at rapidly unrolling or packing their wares. They often clog streets, and local traffic cannot get through. Regular police just don’t care. The vendors instead get busted when 2 vans of special police show up and leap out and arrest people (if they’re lucky) while the vendors flee. You see why they get good at the rapid set-up and breakdown of their little businesses.

Driving seems really dangerous too. In American drivers’ education class, we learned about the two second space cushion. Pay attention to when the car in front of you passes an unmoving object like a telephone pole. If you pass that pole within 2 seconds, you’re too close. Chinese drivers instead use a light cushion. If you can see the car in front of you, then it is safe to get closer, because the light from the car took some time to reach your eye. It could call it high speed bumper to bumper traffic, except they usually don’t have bumpers.

They also pass each other on blind intersections constantly. There is no line in the middle of this mountain road to separate lanes, because it would not matter. Our bus passes trucks immediately before and even during blind intersections, much like the “road of death” in Romania. They manage this partly through proactive honking, which is very common in China. Americans honk when someone pissed them off, or prevents them from accomplishing a goal, or if there’s some kind of real danger. The Chinese honk in anticipation of potential problems. Drivers honk to announce their presence, warning bikers or pedestrians to stay in their lanes. They honk at pedestrians who are crossing in a crosswalk, with a green light and green hand indicating it is “safe”, just to make sure they keep moving, because they’re plowing through a red light toward your current location and just behind where you will be if you keep moving.

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