Curious About China: Riding Public Transit with 1.4 Billion People

China has more people than any nation but fewer cars per person than nearly half the countries in the world. How do people get around? Public transportation! and scooters and bikes, but we'll leave that for another day. For many expats living in China, public transit is a new and intimidating way of commuting. Add to that the language and culture barrier and we might as well be in outer space. I asked GoEast teacher Eva Zhang some questions about public transportation customs and etiquette in China. Eva grew up in Ningbo, South of Shanghai, across Hangzhou Bay with a population of 8 million. She lived in Beijing for a few years and currently resides in Shanghai.


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Did you take public transit as a kid?

When I was just a kid I used to take buses to school. Also my family would take me to my grandparent's house on public transportation. But at that time we didn't have really clean and organized buses. What we have is there's a private company and they have a 28 or 16 person size bus. They have two staff, one is the driver, the other is the ticket person so you buy the ticket when you get on the bus. Now most of the buses in Shanghai and Ningbo don't have the ticket person so you just go on and swipe the card.

Ningbo now has a subway with two lines. [It was built in 2014!]

Do you think the subway is crowded or is that just me? How do you deal with the crowds?

Yeah, I think it's crowded. I just push. If you don't push you cannot get on the train and you have to wait. Sometimes if I have time I can wait but sometimes I don't have time so I just push. Most of the time on the ends of the train there are less people. You can go to the ends and maybe find a seat.

How do you get off at your stop if you're stuck in the middle of the crowd?

Push. And I say 不好意思不好意思 (Bù hǎoyìsi bù hǎoyìsi, excuse me excuse me excuse me). You can also say 下车吗? (Xiàchē ma? Are you getting off?) because many people block the way and they don't move so you have to ask them, are you getting off? If not then move.

Why do I get knocked over by older people running to get a seat on the train?

They want to get the seat and they know there are a lot of people so they rush to it. It's not just on the subway, it's everywhere. It's like Black Friday in the USA: they are the people who rush to the stores. They see the result as the most important thing so they want to get the benefits first.

It's our culture that we need to put other people before us. The reason we have this concept is because there are so many people. Many people will follow this cultural concept but many people are against it. They think why do I need to give my place to others? If I don't go first I'll lose what I'm trying to get. It's common in my parent's generation. There are so many people but the resources are limited so you have to get there first.

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What do you consider to be rude behavior on public transit? How can you tell someone that they're being rude?

Talking really loudly, especially when the whole section can hear you. Taking off your shoes and lying on the seat. I've seen that on empty trains, late at night. I've seen workers who are really tired, just take off their shoes and lay there. It's really not good.

It's ok to tell someone that they're being rude but most people won't do it. They don't want to get involved in an incident or argument when they don't need to. You may spend 30 minutes arguing about "why are you being so loud?" "I'm not being loud, why are you talking to me like that?" and it gets ugly.

Is staring considered rude?

No, it's normal. People wouldn't say you shouldn't stare, it's not taboo that you shouldn't do that. Sometimes people stare at me and I stare back. When our eyes meet they stop staring.

What about reading over someone's shoulder?

I would never do that and I hate people doing that. Sometimes I feel like I'm reading something and I don't want other people to know, even if it's normal things, nothing special. A couple of days ago on the metro, I could feel the person next to me was reading what's on my phone so I covered it. They turned away. For me, I think it's rude and like you're interrupting someone's privacy so I never stare at peoples' phones.

But it's *public* transit...

Yes and my phone is private!

What do you do if someone near you smells really bad?

Most of the time I don't want to sacrifice my seat so I just deal with it. But what can you do? If I can't stand the smell I will just get up but I won't say anything because it's so rude. In Shanghai Metro they have the air blowing through the trains so even if the smell is really strong it's not that bad.

I remember once on a very crowded bus, I was sitting and a guy was standing in front of me. His breath smelled like garlic, alcohol, cigarettes and onions. It smelled so strong that I got up and let him have the seat.


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