Japan. A country deeply rooted in tradition, respect, awareness of one’s self around others, and an inner-appreciation for helping people. A country that, despite it’s own shortcomings, stands out for its differences in cultural norms when compared to our own.
Norms that become so apparent—almost tactile—when I return to the United States after travel there. It doesn’t take long to observe the anger and hostility, or the noise and the madness, that comes with our country.
We all know it exists around us, but we become numb to it. Disgusting politics on both sides, shootings, violent crimes, and regular people becoming nasty surrogates with negative rhetoric.
We hear about these things almost daily, especially in our beloved cities. Sometimes those close to us are on the bitter end of a situation caught up in these themes.
As I return to my home country again, this time after only 10 days abroad, I find myself having the same exact observations; feeling the same feelings; finding frustration in the same issues.
Sadly, I had a similar post drafted last year, but I never posted it:
Scanning my old draft, I recalled the observations I made within the first week of returning home from a previous trip.
They included topics on a grand scale, like the (then) mass shootings in America (the Orlando night club; the Dallas police ambush), both occurring in the span of one month.
But they also included local observations: street walkers shouting profanities at motorists, an irate customer at an auto store cutting line because he was the most important, and a car full of teenagers spouting profanities and middle fingers.
I remember thinking then, what’s going on? Sadly, I feel the same now, too.
Road Rage and the Cyclist
Last week, I was on my bike commute home, following a locally designated “bike route” moving from the city to the west of town. A wide lane running through neighborhoods; better for safety and much less traffic.
For context, I ride this road all the time. I know each stop sign and stop light. I understand the hazardous spots, and I’m always ready to brake.
On this particular evening, when a car approached from the south at a stop sign, I moved my hands from the bars to the hoods to anticipate braking. I didn’t have a stop sign, but this is routine: prepare for not being seen.
The driver looked in my direction, then sped out in front of me to head in the same direction I was moving (west).
Is this atypical? Sadly, no.
As other cyclists traveling the roads know, it’s all too common. For me, it brings a sinking feeling realizing how little people can pay attention. Or perhaps, how little people care about life.
I often wonder to myself, what if I was actually their mom? wife? sister? on the bike? Would they be so careless?
But back to the story. Why was this evening any different?
It was the passenger. Looking at me as we both approached the same space on the road, staring with this red eyes, time frozen in that instant, him making the decision to flick me off. A swollen workman’s hand (with a cigarette down to the filter, no-less) intentionally, casually, giving me the fuck you.
For whatever reason*, I decided, not today.
I followed the car a few blocks to get a picture in case I could report the incident. I read about rage incidents involving bad people and cyclists all the time, but I’d never made the decision to get a picture myself. That decision proved to be only the beginning.
Around the corner, they pulled into a local grocery store and parked. I snapped my picture, the driver hustled inside (acting unseen), and the passenger stepped out. He didn’t go right inside.
I instantly realized in the moment that he was three inches taller and outweighed me by 40 pounds, easily. He had the stereotypical “bar fight gaze” on his face. He would fight right now, no question, I remember thinking. That’s what this guy does.
To make a long story short, the next 3 minutes were filled with his profanities. They revolved around how I’m not special because I ride on two wheels. That I’m an f’in-this, and an f’in-that.
He kept asking, “Do you want to get hurt?” As if any adult person would say, Why yes, I do, especially thanks to someone like yourself.
He ended up settling into simply staring me down, waiting (wanting) for me to make some kind of move. He froze in this odd moment of hate and irrationality. He also proclaimed that he would only go inside if I rode away (around him) first, so he could feel like he stood his ground.
To be clear, all I wanted was for him to own up. To apologize for being a terrible human. To, I don’t know, find a little compassion and mix it with a dash of empathy! Silly me.
Rational vs. “Right”
Farm boy was in the wrong, I called him on it, and his reaction was very black and white: let’s fight so I can feel better about myself.
His life must be so bad; his upbringing and his morals so tainted; that he felt that in that moment the only course of action was to fight me because of what had happened on the road.
Any rational person would surmise that he would be arrested, with multiple witnesses having gathered, and with multiple charges, should he fight. Not only was he entirely irrational, but he wasn’t in the right one bit.
I chose to deescalate the situation, riding away with the picture in pocket. If you’ve ever walked away from a situation like that, you know how hard it can be.
I’ve been trying to understand how people can be so terrible since that ride.
Hate Breeds Hate
Liars, bullies, irrational thinkers. They’re everywhere, of course, but it’s rare to get an up close and personal glimpse of one in the wild. We shield ourselves with community, friends, and in cases like this, the decision to keep riding rather than get the plates. I’m aware that was my call.
Perhaps it’s a humanistic flaw. Surely it’s everywhere; it is, I know.
But for whatever reason, I’m acutely aware of it’s effects on society when I leave the United States, and then come back to it.
I mentioned to my wife recently that I don’t even remember a single car horn walking through Japan’s cities, even Tokyo. Can you imagine that in New York?
In the U.S., people are loud. The louder the better in some circles. Shouting is deemed appropriate. Fighting is cool. Disrespect and cussing is absolutely a norm in our culture. Impatience can be observed in everything from driving our cars, to Internet hate shielded by screens, to many other things.
Where has society; parenting; schooling; all gone so wrong? Leave your bubble, and you will ask yourself the same questions.
I don’t have an answer here; only more questions. I’m always amazed at how badly people can treat other people for no reason. Sadly, perhaps I shouldn’t be.
* The reason is clear, of course. My own internal struggle about this topic, bred into a moment of clarity lacking, which led me to pursue something I typically would not. I found myself so baffled by humans in this moment that I wanted to dig deeper into how someone can be so shitty, even though I likely knew, on some level, it wasn’t going to end in an easy-going conversation. That was my decision.