On Shanghai Hospitality

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A crowded metro station in Shanghai
Inside Pudong International Airport. Photo by James Wilson
Pudong International Airport, Shanghai

To be honest, I’ve been worried about writing a column like this one for awhile now. I knew sooner or later I would make my way to observations and judgments that could get me labeled xenophobic or racist, so I tried to put off making them at least until I could claim some small slice of experience. Even now, I’m worried, but I’ve noticed some things about myself that I feel are changing as a result of my living here, and as I am about to take a month-long trip back home for Chinese New Year, I think this moment is as good as any to reflect on my time here and to begin to talk about those changes. It’s not a topic that I think will be concluded here — barely even broached — but it’s time that I stop shirking the tough conversations and start to assess myself and my time here honestly.

If you’re like me, and you fly into Shanghai, you’ll arrive at the Pudong Airport — a good 20-30 minute drive outside of the city proper. If you’re a poor immigrant (as I was) or a frugal traveler (as I have been) with the good sense to fly in during the times that the metro is running, then that will be your first destination after collecting your luggage and making your way through customs and immigration.

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The tangled web of the Shanghai metro. Furthest SE point is the Pudong International Airport
The tangled web of the Shanghai metro. Furthest SE point is the Pudong International Airport

Here is where you (or I — as this exercise in the second person is clearly just an obvious attempt at forced perspective) will get your first real taste of what my friends and I refer to as “Chinese queuing.” The way it works is that there is a thing — a goal of some kind. That goal could be the machine that prints out the numbers that tell in what order customers will be seen at the bank, or it could be some food stuff sold by a vendor on the street, or, as in this case, it could be the metro cars and their few, precious seats. So, there’s a goal — nothing singularly special in that; as I remember it (and these last months do feel like a much longer span) most other places I’ve been also have number printing machines, street food vendors, and metro cars (with seats). The difference here is that the natural order that springs up — first in line is first in the door, second is second, and so on — is thrown on its head. You may queue up to the side of the doors (as the helpful arrows on the floor of the metro would have you do) so that those in the car could exit their space, thereby creating a vacancy for you to fill. You may do that, but you would be incorrect in assuming that the natives here would do the same. Even before the doors open, people would push you, crowd you, step directly in front of you, claiming your spot, standing where those on the car should be exiting, blocking the flow. When the doors open, what ensues is a slow-paced shoving match that the vulgar in me is tempted to call a clusterfuck.

A crowded metro station in Shanghai
A crowded metro station in Shanghai

When I first encountered this, I have to admit I was mostly amused. It seemed silly that they would throw their lives into such disarray…and over what, exactly? A seat on the metro? Is standing such torture that they should knock around and shove strangers just so they can park their asses for a few minutes? I think I stood back from the “line” and laughed and then entered at the back of the mob, smiling, showing them how easy it was and how we’d all made it to the same place in the end, and most of us standing. I stopped laughing when the metro reached Guanglan Road Station. You see, at Guanglan, you have to exit your car and go to the other side of the platform and board another train. Technically, you never change lines — it’s Line 2 all the way from Pudong to downtown and beyond — but you do have to leave the comfort of your car to seek out a new position. This puts those with asses in seats at a severe disadvantage: they have to collect themselves and prepare to shove towards the doors while those already standing are in prime position to leap out and begin the queue anew. Myself, being the last person in the door, had the misfortune of now being in the way of both mobs, the one wanting out of the car and the one wanting in. My friend who was returning to Shanghai after six weeks of travel told me, in all seriousness, to get ready to shove. I laughed again — at six-foot-three and 240 pounds I didn’t see there being much need. I would move, and these tiny people would scatter before me. So I thought. But, of course, I was wrong. The doors opened, and the crush began, and I was stuck in the middle of it, immobilized by two opposing currents. After several seconds of this, my friend — large like me but more muscular — took matters into his own hands. With his duffel in front of him, he shoved and sent people flying, and I followed in his wake, glad to be free and wondering, not for the first time, just what the hell I’d signed myself up for.

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It wasn’t that I hadn’t encountered this behavior before. But somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I must’ve misplaced the information. My time as a tourist overlooked such minor inconveniences. But living here? That makes it a bit harder to ignore. It begins to wear on you and trickle into your daily existence. You can’t shake it. This first situation was just the beginning of an education that is still ongoing — an education that I think is starting to take hold…but that I’m not sure I want to. What once made me laugh because of its idiocy is now commonplace. Instead of letting myself be shoved, I initiate the shoving. When someone decides that a line is stupid, and that they deserve to be next simply by virtue of standing close to the counter instead of in the line, I yell at them and tell them where they can stand, usually with a few good ol’ vulgar “fucks” thrown in for flavor. When someone tries to run up and take my cab when it’s raining and cold and the last five cabs have waved me off due to my foreign-ness, they get a quick reminder in something that most creatures know instinctively: mass tonnage equals right-of-way.

But I don’t like it — any of it. It goes against my natural inclinations. It isn’t me. It isn’t how my parents raised me to behave. And while I may get a certain rush of adrenaline by shoving some asshat out of the way because he’s decided to block the door on the subway, I’d trade it in a heartbeat for a little common courtesy on his, and everyone else’s part.

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I don’t know that this is a Shanghai thing or even a China thing. I’ve lived in big cities before and traveled through them, but I haven’t spent any significant time in developing nations. Perhaps its the bustle of a city combined with the sudden economic boom on top of the not-too-distant memories of war and famine and want that have people here climbing over one another to be first. Those that are willing to break a few rules and cut a few lines get fed, get paid, get to advance while the rest of us sacrifice these things (supposedly) at the altar of hospitality.

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I don’t know what it is, but I want to believe that it can change given time. More than that, I want to believe that when I head home in a few short days, this side of living here won’t be coming home with me.

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