Driving Miss Chong: Chinese and L.A. Drivers, What's the Difference?


Being Chinese: Driving is like coloring, you have to stay inside the lines.

I learned how to drive at the age of 21. I waited that long because I lived in Toronto, a city what has one of the best public transit systems in the world. I would hop onto a streetcar, transfer to the subway and pop up in the hip part of town without ever having to worry about gas, insurance or where to park my car. In reality, I just didn't want to drive because it was scary to think about maneuvering around a two ton car in snow and ice.

Driving Miss Chong: I call it a left turn, you call it a moving violation.

I moved to Los Angeles five years later, and I was in for the ride of my life. I hated the L.A. freeways. Even with a 500-page Thomas Guide (remember those?), I was still lost. And how do you drive while flipping through a book and looking for A6? Why don't they put "10 West"? Why does it say "10 Santa Monica"? What if you didn't know Santa Monica was west? Or why does the 101 go east/west and then north/south? But what got my goat was the fact that Santa Monica Blvd. does this strange square dance with Wilshire Blvd., and ends up north of it half way through the city!

Driving south on Vine, I would see the street sign tell me I was on Rossmore after Santa Monica Blvd. Who thinks of stuff like this? And why did Wilton all of a sudden become Arlington? (On a side note, one of the best websites on the history of Wilshire Blvd. can be found there at the LA Conservancy.)

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I would say I am a safe driver, I signal when I turn right, I do a full complete stop at all stop signs and I obey the law when it comes to cell phones. I have been known to do U-turns when I miss a street though. Actually, I make quite a lot of them. Mostly because of Los Angeles' idiosyncrasies in the naming of streets and freeways, I became a U-turn specialist, so much so that I wanted a setting on my automatic transmission right after drive, before neutral. I have been caught once, I made a U-turn on Highland Blvd. right in front of a motorcycle cop, I didn't see him, and he was amazed that I didn't.

I have been called a "Chinese Driver" by my friends. I take it in stride, and if they really want to put more bite into it they call me a "Chinese Female Driver." Telling me that by my gender and ethnicity that I am doomed to have high insurance rates is like State Farm adjusting my insurance by my zip code (hey, wait a minute).

I have white knuckled a few rides in friends' cars and wobbled out of cars driven by stark raving maniacs that by day are the nicest people you would ever meet. One of them, is a fellow Canadian, she texts, screams and speeds through Los Angeles like the Four Horseman are right behind her and eyeing the same parking space two blocks down.

Being Everybody: You can't drive either.

In observing Los Angeles drivers, I have seen the worst in all stripes and colors, in all age groups and genders. Earlier this month Forbes published the cities with the worst drivers, Glendale CA came in at #3; which is why Glendale has large flashing lights at each of the pedestrian crossings. Los Angeles came in at #11 out of 12. According to Allstate Insurance, we average an accident every 6.6 years.

In conclusion, it's not being Chinese that makes me a bad driver, its being an Angeleño.

Artist, designer and teacher Ophelia Chong explores her adopted city of Los Angeles with an eye and ear for the small moments that tests the duality of being an Asian American. Join her on her journey every Thursday on KCET's SoCal blog

Image: Ophelia Chong / The Weiner Mobile

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