The first rule I taught my children when we moved to China was that green doesn't mean "go". Don't walk when the green man says walk, and don't stop when the red one says halt. I think we all found it wonderfully liberating.
China has its own rules — and they are not the ones I learnt in kindergarten. In fact, after seven years as a pedestrian and several forays as a driver, I have not yet figured out exactly what they are — but they seem to work. So you are better off making your own deal with the oncoming traffic (or any of the other challenges of living and working in China) than expecting "stop, look and listen" to apply.
China has 5,000 years of history and that means 5,000 years of knowing instinctively that pedestrians have no right of way. That green man may look just like the guy in London or Los Angeles, but he is not the same. He has been localised.
So I tell my kids what I would tell anyone coming to do business in China: don't expect rules to protect you, but don't worry that they will thwart you either. And read Tim Clissold, the British businessman whose book Mr China: A Memoir (2004) is probably the best I have ever come across about China. Now he has written another:Chinese Rules: Mao's Dog, Deng's Cat, and Five Timeless Lessons from the Front Lines in China ; it's about what makes China tick — for foreigners who can clearly hear it ticking but can't quite figure out why.
Rule one in his book is that China does not play by anyone else's rules so stop wishing that it would. To which I would add: you can make that work for you. My children love never having to wait for the lights to change to cross the street. That is certainly one way to celebrate what others might call lawlessness.
In the big picture, lawlessness has receded monumentally since we moved here in 2008. New laws, closely guided by western models, have been passed in virtually every area of business life in China, from intellectual property to competition law. But old habits die hard, and it may take decades for the habits of legality to trickle down to the average wage slave. So I still have plenty of daily opportunities to see people ignoring rules I thought were written in stone and to teach my kids how to make that work for them.
Often, this happens in hotels, perhaps because "the customer is always right" is another one of those rules that China most definitely does not play by. Recently, I took the kids to a five-star hotel for one of those quintessential parent-teen bonding excursions that involve letting them lie in a hotel Jacuzzi and order room service all day. When we got there, the hotel clerk calmly informed us that he had rented out our pre-paid room to another guest who really, really wanted to stay there.
Of course, in the end they found us a suite instead, and the kids celebrated by inviting several classmates to share the Jacuzzi and sleep over — in a room with a maximum official occupancy of two. So that is the teen version of the green man "don't walk" rule: if the other guy breaks the rules, so can you. You may get the better end of the bargain.
Clissold's fourth rule (I won't tell you the others; buy the book) is that given the choice between the right result and the right rule, China will always choose pragmatism. That one has worked in my family's favour, too: like the time when the police allowed us to license two dogs — in the same week that the law changed, making owning more than one dog illegal.
Being an inveterate stickler for the rules, I tried to point out to the accommodating cop that what we were doing was against the law. He indicated that, being a policeman and all, he was aware of the new law — so could I please stop looking my gift dog in the mouth and just go home.
My message to my kids, and to anyone else who wants to live a happy life in China, is not to get hung up on rules; nobody else does. And you must ditch the kindergarten morality. It is too simple for this place.