My mother is a sociologist at her core. She tells me stories about the days she visited the overpopulated ghettos on the fringes of the ever-growing Turkish metropolises for academic purposes. When you are with her, you notice she has a special connection with people of every kind. She observes behavior and analyzes. Most women cry for help when they are realize they are becoming more and more like their mothers. I happily accept it. I am an analyzer. Especially when I really want to understand the population and behavior patterns ties to culture like I do in China (my brother and Patrick call it a staring problem – which isn’t a problem at all in China, because everyone stares).
The two hours of every day I spend up close and very personal with several thousand of my slight-framed, black-haired cohabitants provides me with insights I am learning to treasure (and I will continue telling myself this so as not to lose my cool). A quick run-down of my morning:
1. Leave home at 8:00am, sometimes 8:05 (but no later than 8:10 or I am not only late to work, but also hit the peak of rush hour on the train).
2. Greet the doorman with my convincing “Ni Hao” and ask him to open the door to the bike parking lot below our apartment building (in the beginning, this was done using all four limbs in a charades-like attempt to demonstrate using my bike, but now I have got the sentence down pat – except for the word bike “zixingche” which still challenges my American tongue).
3. Bike about 5 minutes to the West Yan’an Rd subway station (most of the line is elevated). There is nothing to get you awake in the morning like a good bike ride in Shanghai. Be on alert at all times.
4. Park my bike and get a ticket from the “bike valet parker” whose sole job is to watch all the bikes from 8 to 7 every day. I usually come home after he is gone, but so far, my bike has remained in tact (friends say it’s just a matter of time till I walk out and my bike is gone).
5. Wait for the train to come. One of my first mistakes was taking the yellow line which also stops at the same station and goes the same route before veering off and going north. I take the purple line – number four. This train comes every 8 minutes during rush hour. I have my arrival times almost perfectly now, but in the beginning, I would too often have to wait in the boiling heat while sweat would drip down my back and my hair would begin to stick to my forehead.
6. 12 stops, about 35 minuets in what feels like a meat locker until masses of people keep rushing in pushing you closer and closer to people you never wanted to be that close with. Here is what’s going on: most read the free paper handed out at the stations, some play with their mobiles phone, some listen to music, some sleep, some eat their breakfasts using obnoxiously loud smacking noises, some clear their throats and/or noses. Those who are not otherwise preoccupied, stare. They love to stare at anything I happen to be holding in my hands – most of the time,it’s my Chinese vocabulary notebook, a novel of some kind, or my phone. Most of the time I am standing – some days I “conquer” a seat (I use that word because it is not an easy feat and I feel I use strategy and skill to obtain it).
7. The exit. The exit is a disgusting display of what happens when there are too many people trying to achieve opposing things in a very short amount of time. We have OUT contingency and the IN contingency. Sometimes we have flag-bearing officials at the doors trying to control the whole thing, but I have yet to observe what they really do. I try to position myself close enough to the door during the trip that I can approach it at my stop (yet not too close – as I discovered on day 2 or 3). Then I just stand there – knees slightly bent, arms folded around my bag, elbows out – and wait for the OUT group to sweep me along in their stampede. Note: I do almost none of the pushing -it is all done for me – which really made one of the Chinese girls behind me really upset the other day.
8. Walk about 10 minutes to the office. The office is in a really modern, glass, 50-floor building with a four-star hotel in it. However, the walk to the office consists of passing government housing whose toilet stalls are conveniently located on the sidewalk outside. I also pass street vendors selling all kinds of foods, a very busy bus stop, and two insane intersections. No stroll through the park.
The masses of bodies do the least to deter Chinese from their daily routine- after all, they are used to it. I soon will be too…I hope.