The China Dichotomy – The Metro
My Chinese friends have always argued that my perception of Chinese courtesy was wrong. “They are nice to you because you are American.” It is hard to believe and reconcile my personal experience of continued kindness and courtesy by strangers with the native belief that Chinese are not nice.
Maybe as a tourist, I never looked closely, or had the opportunity to view China closely.
I decided to spend one month in Beijing for intensive language study. With more than one billion people speaking Chinese, it is probably a useful second language.
I am settling into the routine of travelling to my 9:30 AM lesson. It is a 20 to 25 minute subway ride from my residence, on the South side of Beijing, to my class in the Chaoyang District, near the Central Business District of Beijing. Seven stops from Shilihu to Tuanjiehu on Line10. Line 10 is the outer ring of two lines that circle the center of Beijing. The rings lines are intersected at Transfer Stations with other lines connecting the entire grid. On Line 10 during rush hour, between 7 and 9 AM, the next trains arrives within a minute or less after the other leaves. They are moving people of the platforms, but not as fast as they are accumulating.
The trains leaving are more than crowded. The train has taken its maximum from the platform, leaving others waiting for the next train. Within that one minute between trains the line extends, people waiting to get to work. The platform is isolated from the tracks by a glass partition. The train stops and the train door lines up with the door on the platform. Lining up for entry is well marked. One orderly line on each side of the door. Human nature, being what it is, there are always people trying to move to the head of the line, and they are met with polite comments, which they quietly accept and usually move to the back.
The train arrives, the doors open and orderliness disappears. This may be the similar to the Black Friday phenomenon when people are trampled by others so focused on their quest they lose their sense of humanity. In Beijing, this is a daily event repeated every minute or so for two hours, not limited to a few people and a few stores. It is actually numbing. For some there is resignation to the situation, for some it is discomfort, but for some there is fear. The force of the crowd is far greater than they can manage and they are physically controlled by the crowd. For many, their effort will be futile and the ability to determine their own direction is lost.
The train arrives and people push off and are met by people immediately pressing to get on. It is nonviolent physical confrontation. In this mix of oncoming and off going people it is a challenge of will and physical effort to win achieve your goal. It takes me two trains to move from the end of the line to get on the train. My judgement when the car is full, people barely fitting in, is to stand back and wait for the next train. But, that is an obscure courtesy. There is always some person, even sometimes a petite female, pushing into the crowded train, squeezing one more body into the filled space and then pushing on any available wall or ceiling so that they do not get expelled, until the doors close. People are more pliable than oranges in a crate and can be squeezed and not crushed. For me, at nearly six feet tall, I have space above my shoulders to breathe and see, but pity the smaller people, heads buried in another’s furry collar.
The crush invades your body. In the first stages of the crush you are surrounded and may wiggle or twist a bit. Not wiggle or twist too much so as not to create some impression on your neighbor, who is now is a physically intimate as sexual partners, yet clothed. But when that last person pushes himself onto the train, you are then locked into the position you last held. There is no room for movement. Your clothes are pressed tightly against you because the adjacent person is also squeezed against you. The agony on faces of smaller people, without air to breathe is disturbing. The situation exacerbates when someone tries to get up from their seat. People are locked into position, beyond movement and now one more person is added to this crowd. Before someone can be removed from the crowd to take the seat, an elegant dance occurs. This takes at least six steps. They must wiggle and squeeze until the seated person can clear the seat so that someone can then sit. Shoulders twist to present a side view as the person knifes into the space the other person created by turning sideways. They find the next seam and turn sideways in a different direction and the next person obliges so they can slide across each other. The pressure from each step, adding a person and removing more space from the crowd is felt three or four people away from the action.
This travel extracts a toll on people. Resignation at the daily ordeal is written on everyone’s face. In one case, the woman was a bit late, or maybe polite in standing behind someone, when the doors opened. In the five seconds it took her to try to get to the opened door, the oncoming wave of people literally swept her further back into the subway car. Her helplessness in the situation was disturbing. One day I was standing near the car door. It opened and a woman was being swept out of the train by the crowd. I was able to grab her hand and pull her back. A drowning person swept away, being saved by a helping hand. She was appreciative of my help. Surprisingly, she did not appear to be very shaken by the experience. To her, it may have been routine.
Existing on the Beijing subway takes advanced planning and thought. One day I was engaged in conversation with someone and the doors opened at the stop before mine and the crowd came rushing in. Too late. I was now at the door waiting for the stop and six people deep. The door opened and four of the six in front got off. The other two were not moving and the crowd began to rush inward. This is not pleasant, and for those squeamish, please go immediately to the next paragraph, but the big guy in front who was not moving and not planning to get off at Shilihu stop but who would not budge to let me by, did find himself on the platform at Shilihu trying to get back on. He looked left trying to see what was moving him, I moved right, blending into the crowd. Sorry Mother, I know you taught me better.
I expend effort on the subway to smile at everyone, say “Hello” and try to remind everyone that there is comradery in even this numbing situation. That you can create human connections in this inhospitable experience and that the misery can be shared.
As I leave the subway, a bit sweaty from the bodies I enter the building which houses the language school. The selfsame people from the subway are courteously lined up waiting for the next elevator. No pushing ahead, so cramming into the elevator. A very civilized situation.
I leave it to the professionals to draw lessons and parallels from this experience.
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