Travel does wonders to help us see our common humanity, to open our eyes to how other people live and go about their routines and to understand just how much those patterns resemble our own. Despite differences of language or cuisine or politics, it's a joy to recognize your grandmother's face or your cousin's laugh in a stranger half a world away.

That growing familiarity can be helpful in breaking barriers that keep you from trying new things and talking with people you don't know. But it can work against you too, when it puts your mind on automatic, and you make unconscious assumptions about how things work and how people will react. The more mentally comfortable you are, the less aware you can become of your surroundings. And that's when you get hit by a taxicab.

Which way is traffic coming from? It's Hong kong, which used to be British, so the cars are coming from your right. If this were Mainland China, they'd be coming from your left.

Which way is traffic coming from? It's Hong kong, which used to be British, so the cars are coming from your right. If this were Mainland China, they'd be coming from your left.

The good news is, whether you're in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, or anywhere else, Asian cities have a thriving sidewalk culture, and people live their lives on the streets. Shopping malls have not taken over; neighborhoods are vital, and there is ample transit wherever you go. On the sidewalk, you should be leisurely, but at some point you'll need to get to the other side of the street. On the crosswalk, you need to be alert, aware, and actively moving...

Tokyo's famous Shibuya "Scramble crossing" - five streets, plus a busy metro station, dozens of buses, and multiple shopping arcades. Said to be the busiest single spot on Earth - incredible for people-watching ... from a safe distance.

Tokyo's famous Shibuya "Scramble crossing" - five streets, plus a busy metro station, dozens of buses, and multiple shopping arcades. Said to be the busiest single spot on Earth - incredible for people-watching ... from a safe distance.

It's not just that each country has a unique yet stereotypical culture of how auto and truck traffic relates to pedestrians. (Chinese drivers will try to occupy all possible roadway space at all possible times; Japanese drivers expect everyone to obey all posted signs whether you can read or see them; Vietnamese traffic appears to part magically; and so on) Each town, each block has its own quirks. The people who live and work - and drive - there have figured out their own system over time. You'll only be in that spot probably once.

So the rules for you, as a foreigner, are simple:

  • ONLY cross at a crosswalk. Your actions as an outsider are unpredictable enough for a local driver, don’t complicate the matter by popping up in an unexpected place.
  • Know what way traffic is coming from. (Japan and Hong Kong drive on the left!) Watch the street for a cycle of the lights - are drivers turning? Is there a parking ramp or alleyway where cars emerge?
  • Have a plan on where you are going before you step foot into the intersection - tell and show your children exactly where you all are headed.
  • Pay attention to the stoplights; they work the same in every country. It doesn’t matter if the drivers don’t seem to; if you try to cross on a red, you’re in the wrong. Depending on where you are and who is watching, that might get you into trouble.
  • Do not stop in the middle of the street to take a picture or get your bearings - move with speed and decisiveness.
  • Most importantly - don’t *just* do as the locals do, do it *with* the locals. You want to cross while surrounded by a large bunch of people.
UN-SIGnaleD right-turn lanes for drivers to whip through, mopeds and bicycles mixed with the pedestrian pathway as well as the regular vehicle lanes, stoplights that are "suggestions", wide boulevards but short signal times, and having to cross three separate flows of auto traffic. This is a very good intersection in the People's Republic.

UN-SIGnaleD right-turn lanes for drivers to whip through, mopeds and bicycles mixed with the pedestrian pathway as well as the regular vehicle lanes, stoplights that are "suggestions", wide boulevards but short signal times, and having to cross three separate flows of auto traffic. This is a very good intersection in the People's Republic.

The suggestions are common-sense and would just as easily apply if you were visiting Manhattan or San Francisco or New Orleans. But because you probably won't know the language, you won't be able to read the signs, especially if you aren't in a touristy area. 

Be observant and mindful - it's going to keep you and your family safe. It's also going to help you pick up more detail, more vividly as you travel.