Three-Point Turn, Chinese Style

My favorite photo because it’s clear how fast the car at the rear is moving.

This is a photo celebration of the Chinese three-point turn. There’s no other driving strategy as predictable on Shanghai’s streets as this particular maneuver. A turn missed? (Why not just turn at the next block?) Evading congestion at the upcoming intersection? (There was congestion at the preceding intersection, too.) Left your oven on? (The ayi can take care of that!) I cannot understand why this happens so often!

Every other Shanghai driving maneuver seems moderately explicable to me, even sidewalk driving, but not this. These sudden mid-intersection and mid-road pivots are so common, I can only assume they are standard operating procedure in China’s driver’s education classes — wait, does China have driver’s education classes? I’d bet REAL cash (I would risk it!) that you’d see at least two three-point turns in a 10-minute walk in Shanghai.

Nary a horn was honked

The day I walked out my door with the specific intention of taking photos of three-point turns, one was happening directly in front of me. I couldn’t even get my phone unlocked fast enough to take the photo. It doesn’t matter if the intersection is one of the busiest, narrowest intersections, teeming with people, bikes, scooters and cars (Changle and Changshu), there will be a three-point turn every 5 minutes. It also doesn’t matter if there’s a cop directing traffic. Cars still stop in the middle of the intersection, hold up traffic, and turn around.

That featured image of the white car at the top of the page? That was taken at the intersection of Nanjing Xi Lu and Tongren Lu: a major intersection in Jing’an. No one even honked a horn over this — and the Chinese are aggressive honkers! Even stranger is that fact that this doesn’t seem to annoy anyone. I guess honking is reserved for insulting taxi drivers or as a pure location service to pedestrians: Be aware that I’m here.


Because I like metaphors, I want desperately to find one for this trend. But I can’t. As a metaphor for life (even in China), the three-point turn is terrible. We like to think of our lives as progressing forward, in a straight line. We refer to unexpected events in life as “bumps in the road” or obstacles of one kind or another. We go around hurdles or over them, but then we “move forward” with our lives. We don’t make three-point turns in life.

Someone once told me my life was taking a “left turn” when I moved to China, but even then I’d still be driving forward in some capacity, just in a different direction. No, the three-point turn doesn’t work as a life metaphor because it suggests you’re finicky or fickle or you’ve decided to go back to where you came from. Even worse, you appear to be going in circles, like a dog chasing its tail, and who would want to admit the possibility of that?

So we will leave the metaphors behind us (on the streets of life) and accept that in China, the three-point turn is merely a part (of living) and driving — a little loop on a long and winding road.

To be fair, this wasn’t really a three-point turn so much as an awkward sidewalk turn. Notice that no one in the vicinity of the car finds this situation interesting except me.



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