Beware the Crowds

During your first visit to China you will first be, or have been, overwhelmed by the number of people. It is one thing to talk about 1.6 billion people, but it is a whole different animal to see them hustling and bustling and bumping and pushing into…you. In the west, personal space may be about two feet. If you stand behind someone in line, you probably aren’t going to get much closer than that without starting to feel a little uncomfortable. In China, personal space equals exactly zero. There is no qualm or notice about standing in line or on the bus with bodily contact. Traffic space (between cars and buses) is equally small, often getting down to millimeters, but, amazingly, rarely actually touching.

Publicly, China is very impersonal

Crowd ChinaThis leads to a different way of thinking. In public, the feeling is very impersonal. Chinese seldomly use words like please or thank you with people they don’t know. To that point, I was on a subway during rush hour in China about 6 years ago. I had been to China about 15 times by then, so I had a pretty good understanding of the rules and I knew that I had to be ready for my stop. The subway car was packed, but there was only one person in between me and the door, a golden opportunity. I was ready. When those doors opened, my foot followed my predecessor’s by inches. But, even with all my preparation, I was too late.

Ode to Hockey Lady

I’m still not exactly sure how she did it, but an elderly lady about four and a half feet tall, hair pulled back into a chaotic pony tail behind her, came barreling into the car and gave a shoulder check to my hip bone strong enough to push me back into the car. Put a stick in her hand and she might be a solid addition to the NHL.

In China, personal space equals exactly zero
I took one step in the wrong direction and it was over. The crowd coming in saw their opportunity and the crowd behind knew destiny was in their own hands. I fought madly upstream against the rush and, a couple minor bumps and bruises aside, finally made it out before the doors closed. Ah, sweet survival.

“Walk on the left”, Really!

Scenes like this are common, cramming into buses, cutting in lines, mass movement in seemingly random patterns sometimes…but times are changing. At the World Expo, Shanghai took note and had volunteers standing at the subway escalators informing riders to stand on the right, walk on the left. I was so impressed, but didn’t actually take it seriously. It seemed like such a long way to go to get to that point. “What?, really? You actually expect people to be able to walk on the left?”. I stood there, on the left, showing my glowing approval, telling the volunteers what a great and important job they were doing until the momentary stun from my speaking to them in Chinese wore off and they earnestly told me to scoot the heck over. Kudos to you, ‘Walk-on-the-Left’ girls!

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