There are over a billion people who live in China, and it seems like they are all here in Beijing. This is a very crowded city! This photo on the left taken at the Olympic “Bird’s Nest” is a rare sight. It’s hard to get a picture without any people in it! This morning, I worried about getting crushed at the subway station, when I was trying to change lines. The video below shows how crowded it was, and actually the real pushing happened after I put my camera away. It’s a pretty typical scene for the daily commute. Some days are better than others, but the subway is pretty much always packed.
Since I am leading a group of high school students, we travel in a big mob and definitely stand out. People often photograph us, sometimes asking to pose with us or sometimes sneaking it from across the room. The African American and blond students in our group get the most attention. As you can see, we don’t blend in too well.
Sometimes we stop in public places and our interns, Stanley and Gabriella, give talks about the places we are visiting. Local Chinese people are often interested and stop to listen and watch our group. It’s sometimes a little creepy to have them hovering over our shoulders. In this photograph, Gabriella is giving a talk about the Olympic Stadium and the random man in the background just stopped to stare at us.
The crowds aren’t always intense, but every day when we ride the subway, I learn something new about sharing a tight space with a lot of people. Most people push here to get in and out of the subway, and it takes some getting used to. People aren’t always disrespectful when they push, but occasionally, you’ll see someone use their elbow. More often, Chinese people are just trying to get where they need to go. They aren’t as bothered as Westerners by the lack of personal space. Instead, they prioritize getting in, getting out, and getting ahead. They are moving with purpose, and they don’t seem to mind that the others around them are doing the same. Perhaps this is why the GDP in China is going up about 10% every year.
People in China are going places. In the United States, people wait for exiting passengers to get out of the train before getting in, and they often give up their seats to people in need. Here, there’s no waiting. You need to squeeze in when you see a hole in the crowd, and sit when you see a free seat. If you don’t, someone else will take the opportunity. Anyway, getting a seat on the subway is so rare that this issue doesn’t come up much. In the rare moment when we get a seat, we are so happy and shocked that we need to photograph the joyous occasion.
I don’t mean to imply that Chinese people are selfish and individualistic. In fact, every meal is a communal experience, where dishes are shared family-style. I’m learning a lot about how tradition and duty to others is the fundamental value here. When I ride the Beijing subway, I need to remind myself of this.