My wife’s uncle was tired, and she wanted me to take over from him and drive.
“Do you think you can?” my wife asked.
Of course I could. Whether I should was another question.
Ordinarily, I would be glad to get behind the wheel of a car. But I was in China, where driving isn’t quite what I was used to.
We were headed from the airport in Shanghai to her parents’ house about 325 miles away in Jiangsu province. As I moved into the driver’s seat, I started getting butterflies, much as I had as a novice driver a decade earlier in the U.S.
I reminded myself that a car in China is basically the same as a car in the U.S. All the normal components were there, including the accelerator.
Except in the U.S., you push slowly but firmly on the accelerator as you head down the highway. But in this version of driving, instead of slowly pressing down or easing off, my foot constantly switched back and forth from the accelerator to the brake to contend with cars merging unexpectedly.
I was still peering through a windshield, but my eyes also darted to the side to make sure no one was passing on the shoulders.
And, most unusual of all, although my hands were still planted at 10 and 2 o’clock on the steering wheel, my left hand seemed to be drawn, as if by some mysterious gravitational force, toward the wheel’s center to honk the horn.
In China, the sound of car horns is just part of the music of the city. In the U.S., it’s … not.
In fact, I rarely honk the horn, doing so only to alert others to an impending crash. Even if a driver isn’t paying attention when the light changes, I keep quiet because the beep seems unnecessarily rude and aggressive, like clearing your throat to make a point.
Not in China. The blare of the horn isn’t a message about outrage. It isn’t about scolding. It is simply a warning, perhaps conforming to its original intent.
So I started to sound the horn. Slowly, I started to like it.
A car came into my lane to pass a slower vehicle.
A city bus was trying to pull in front of me after picking up its passengers.
A pedestrian tried to step into my lane.
China had unleashed in me some kind of repressed driving id.
And I started to enjoy the freedom.
The formal rules of driving in China may not be as entrenched or as strongly enforced as those in the U.S., but there are many unwritten rules.
After a while, they began to make sense to me. It was a lot like the old Cold War policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, which held that no country with nuclear weapons would ever use those weapons on a country that also had them.
The same was true in China. No driver would ever assume a car would let him in, and, in turn, no driver would ever assume that any other driver wouldn’t try to get in.
Unlike MAD, when no nuclear weapons were ever used, the policy here doesn’t have quite the same success on Chinese roads, according to the World Health Organization.
In China, there were about 19 accidents per 100,000 people, compared with about 11 per 100,000 in the United States, a 2015 WHO report said.
Still, I never saw major accidents, just fender-benders.
By the end of my two weeks in China, I was feeling comfortable with this new driving paradigm — so much so that it was difficult to adjust back when we returned home.
Months later, I still find myself tempted to pass a slow vehicle on city streets. I still want to merge without waiting for another car to wave me in. And too often, I find my hand drawn by that same force back toward the center of the steering wheel.
Whenever I beep the horn now, I’m reminded that travel broadens our horizons, reinforcing the notion that our way isn’t always the right, only or even best way.
Departure Points, a new monthly column, explores the lessons learned while traveling. You may submit a first-person essay of 700 worlds or less to email@example.com with Departure Points in the subject line. Please include your first and last names.