Time and again I made the 30 minute walking journey to my ESL classroom on the far side of the university campus. Time and again my fellow international teachers whizzed by on their motorbikes, waving smugly while sweating significantly less. Over and over, I pondered the benefits of purchasing my own bike; after all, it would save me time and money. And I’d look REALLY cool.
While no two Asian countries are the same, one overarching commonality among many is the prevalent use of motorbikes and bicycles as a main form of transportation. After months of squishing onto crowded buses and ruining the bottoms off my shoes, I finally caved and purchased some sweet new wheels.
Why not get the local experience by learning to navigate the world famous bicycle river that is Asian traffic?
For future English teachers considering purchasing a bike while teaching abroad in Asia, two words: do it! And then read this article. Consider these six pointers from a fellow teacher, expat, and Asia-fanatic so you can get the most out of your bike!
1. There is Harmony in Chaos.
To best visualize Asia’s traffic, picture Japan’s notorious Shibuya Crossing, except with life threatening motorcycles. Overall, when considering the utter lack of regulation, it’s shocking there aren’t more casualties. This (somewhat ostensible) safety on the road is mainly true around big cities, where the congested roads rarely allow vehicles to reach fatal speeds. This is also due to the maneuverability of motorcycles, which make up a large portion of independent transportation in popular Asian countries for teaching abroad, like Vietnam, China, Thailand, and South Korea.
To best instill faith in said maneuverability, try observing a massive current of motorcycles swarm around a jaywalker. More often than not, you will just see a fender bender that leaves minor scratches or a motobike tipped over.
Learn to trust it, go with the flow, and be confident. Depending on where “back home” is for you, if you mastered merging on a highway, then Asian-traffic should be a cinch. Essentially, the principles are the same; just treat every street as a freeway. For example, sometimes it’s safer to assertively speed up with the flow of traffic than it is to timidly nudge across lanes. Let a more experienced driver navigate through the nooks and crannies of the never-ending traffic jam, so you don’t have to. Just be sure to leave enough room for any unexpected “brake checks.”
2. Watch Your Back, Brain, and Bike.
When driving in Asia, do as the Asians do, but don’t get cocky. Every day, many people die from motorcycle and bike related accidents. You’re bound to find yourself in some dangerous situations; the least you can do is invest in a worthwhile helmet. Although helmets are required by law in many Asian countries, the majority of helmets on the road are cheap and ineffective. Ask a local friend to help you shop so you find a helmet that is affordable, high quality, and most importantly, effective.
DO NOT leave your vehicle unattended. Most businesses will have a trustworthy parking attendant whom you can pay to watch your bike, or you need to invest in a secure locking system (no flimsy cable locks will do!). Consider purchasing a sturdy U-Lock or chained locking device instead.
The majority of motorcycles come equipped with two locks. Locking the first is standard, but don’t lock the steering column when you leave it in a monitored parking lot. Space is a hot commodity and the attendants are constantly rearranging things in a game of “motorbike tetris.” But when outside of a friend’s house or in a public park, (no matter how brief the stop), ALWAYS lock the steering column!
3. There are Perks of Being a Foreigner.
For better or worse, foreigners can sometimes “get away” with traffic violations while living abroad in Asia. Whether you speak the local language or not, you should likely play dumb when pulled over solo. Most officers don’t want to waste their time trying to communicate with inept immigrants, or worse, risk unwanted media attention. Whether you’re driving within the law or overstepping it, there is the unofficial disturbance of being a foreigner that gives you an added layer of defense in Asia.
If you do find yourself in a predicament with the law, stay calm. Almost all officers are generally friendly toward international teachers, once you disclose that this is your profession and purpose for being abroad. Usually fines will be remitted right then-and-there, or you will be directed toward a suitable bureau to settle the bill. Remember that you are under their jurisdiction; while it’s possible to contest accusations, it is generally not recommended, lest you are up for a legal battle that involves your national embassy and the local government.
4. The Horn Is Mightier Than the Turn Signal.
At first, traffic noises in Asia will seem like a cacophony with no rhyme or reason, which is partly true, but you will learn to discern between the different honks. Think of it less as a headache in the making and more as a swarm of bats using sonar to detect the surroundings. Sometimes it’s a leadfoot blasting their horn only milliseconds before zooming past you. Other times, it’s just a motorist zipping through an intersection. Instead of stopping, it’s commonplace to slow down just enough (while honking) to warn any vehicles out of peripheral vision.
In the West, if a stop light turns green and the person in front of you doesn't notice, common courtesy is to give a "love tap" on the horn, resulting in a discrete honk. This is not common practice in Asia (as we’re sure you’ve noticed while teaching in the classroom or administering a quiz and found yourself thinking “quiet down, traffic!”).
Generally speaking, the locals' tolerance to noise is much higher. Unrelenting "full blast" honks or incessant “dings” of the bell are standard, which can be one of the most frustrating aspects of choosing to buy a motorbike or bicycle while teaching in Asia. You will develop some resilience over time, but even the locals complain about the noise, so just aim to decrease your agitation instead of eliminating it.
5. Keep Culture in Mind When Lost in Translation (or Traffic).
Sun dialed. Asians are polar opposites to cats eager to lounge in a patch of sunshine. One peculiar practice across Asia is how the vast majority of residents cover every inch of their body even in scorching heat. This is because pale skin isn't seen as it is in the West; instead, it is the ideal beauty most closely associated with wealth. If the flow of traffic has abruptly stopped several meters behind a stoplight for seemingly no reason, keep an eye out for where the sun rays hit.
Male versus female drivers. Along the same lines of perceived beauty are the strong gender roles that are still prevalent; this is why it’s considered chivalrous for a man to drive even if the female owns the motorcycle. Don’t worry if you’re not a fan of old-school customs. Although appreciated, this same practice is not expected of foreigners.
15 minutes of fame. Regardless of your gender, the traditional aspects of Asian societies means MASSIVE RESPECT for education. In many Western countries, teachers get blamed for bad students, and called lazy for summer vacation. Likewise, Teacher Appreciation Day gets overlooked along with the other patronizing holidays like Secretary's Day and Grandparent's Day. In Asia, being a teacher is similar to the status a doctor receives back home, and there's even an entire week dedicated to teacher appreciation full of presents, performances, and days off!
No helmets and no minimum age. Something even more shocking (but that doesn’t directly affect visitors), is the fact that children aren’t required to wear helmets by law. It is perfectly common to see babies and toddlers riding motorbikes on their parents lap with no form of protection. Just keep in mind that these social norms are starting to change.
Lining up was never taught in elementary school. Lastly (and the one that drives foreigners crazy), is the lack of queuing. Prepare yourself mentally, and remember that there’s no such thing as riding someone's bumper. Likewise, if you try to “let someone in” you are likely to just frustrate the motorists behind you. This can be infuriating if you try to hold onto your old cultural ideas. Instead, reap the benefits by realizing that there’s also no such thing as cutting someone off.
Any other former ESL teachers out there who can share my love/hate relationship with their motorcycle or bicycle (and even stronger distaste for the alternatives)?
Think of your transit from home to the classroom (and to happy hour) as less of a hindrance and more as another opportunity to adopt a “go with the flow” attitude. If so, you’ll be able to appreciate a once in a lifetime experience that is quintessential to daily life while teaching abroad in Asia. Hit the road!