Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Shanghai Diaries - The Madness of Crowds

My wife and I have decided to move back to the States for good in July. There are many reasons for this decision ranging from my lack of real career options to my wife's need to be somewhere where she'll actually finish her dissertation. It was a hard decision in some ways, but I must admit I'm really rather thrilled to be headed back. As we've now made the decision, I find myself looking forward to many of the conveniences that we'll have in the US, and being more irritated with things here in Shanghai.

One of these annoyances is with the people. No, not the individual people. I've found most of the Chinese to be pleasant, friendly, and kind. I've made many Chinese friends and I will miss them dearly. The people themselves are as interesting and varied as any people you'll find. It is not the individual people that bother me, but the collective – the en masse that proves bothersome. There are just so darn many of them.

I grew up in rural Oklahoma, in a town with fewer than 20,00 people. Since moving out I have lived in larger cities such as Joplin, Missouri; Montgomery, Alabama; and the whopping metropolis of Strasbourg, France (population 500,000.) That's a far cry from the 18 million odd people who live in Shanghai. Maybe those who live in places like New York or Chicago can grasp just how many people that is, but for this poor boy from Oklahoma it has been nothing less than eye-opening.

The masses are a bit like ants in a colony just after some kid has blown it to bits with an M-60. People are constantly moving in every direction. There might be some order buried in the chaos, but to an outsider it looks like crazed madness.

I live in the relative peace and quiet of the suburbs. The outer limits of the suburbs actually, and it is still overwhelming. There is never a time when there aren't hoards of people about. Shopping is the worst. We frequent Carefour a French-owned grocery store not too far from here and it is always "busting at the seams" crowded. Think about Wal-Mart on a Saturday or your favorite mall around the holidays, then triple it, and you have some idea - and that's during the off hours.

Shopping is a nightmare to me in the best of scenarios, and here it is always just shy of completely awful. Carefour has two main aisles running perpendicular to each other through the middle of the store. There is plenty of room in these aisles for loads of people. Still I always find myself behind some lolly-gaggers doing the Chinese stroll. They have a particular knack for slow, meandering walks that never fail to get in my way.

In the big aisles I'll get behind one of these strollers walking so slow grass is growing up under the feet. I try to pass but am thwarted on both sides – to the left, cart after cart of people going the other way rush by cutting off my every movie. To the right, people behind me rush to make a pass and zip in ahead of me. When I finally get a free space and make my move, the mad stroller inevitably performs a wobbly turn in that same direction and keeps me from moving. Eventually I get serious and butt my cart in and pass only to be quickly blocked by some other meanderer.

In small aisles there is always someone with a cart parked right in the middle blocking the other side with their bodies as they look over whatever consumer goods are on display. While there, some friend or acquaintance or talkative stranger stops by to chat, completely blocking the entire aisle, oblivious to the forming line behind them.

Speaking of lines, the Chinese don't seem to believe or at least understand them. In the States if there is a counter, or some need for people to be serviced a queue will almost assuredly be formed. They may not always be neat, but there is always some semblance of order. Here, unless forced to by an authority or by structure, the Chinese form what can only be called a chaotic crowd for the same need

There is no queue, only a mass of people trying to edge their way to the front. Recently we took a mini vacation and in the airport for our flight back we stood in a long line for the security check point. I call it a “line” but really it was more like a gelatinous goo of people slowly merging into one, with various other folks standing about. Even under the tightest of securities, we were all still pushing about trying to get closer. As we moved forward , the elbows came out and the strategic positioning began as we all tried to get slightly closer to the end.

Everywhere it is the same. At KFC there is the same mass of people trying to get their order in edgewise. Don't move fast enough, or allow an inch of space between you and the person in front of you, and someone will squeeze in front. Even at the front of the line, my order being taken, I have been edged out, by someone behind me shouting out their order while I'm looking at the English menu making my decision.

The subway is probably the best example of the craziness. As a juxtaposition, I'll first speak about my experience on the Tokyo subway. Tokyo has an enormous population and a gargantuan subway system. As you wait for the subway there are marks on the floor detailing exactly where the doors of the train will be once it stops. The people all line up in two queues on each side of each door in an orderly fashion. There are security guards directing people where to go and ensuring no one gets to close to the edge.

When the train stops, all the people politely wait until every passenger getting off steps off the train before they proceed to get on in an orderly fashion. Sometimes the trains do get crowded and I've seen the security guards give a great big push to the masses to get everyone on board (giving a bow before they push) but everything is done is a polite and courteous manner.

In Shanghai they have similar marks on the floor and there are always congregations of people standing about those marks, but there are also legions of others standing about everywhere. When the train does stop, those not near the marks all try to push their way into the groups standing near the doors. You have to position yourself decisively in a sports stance with elbows out if you are to keep your place. Once the doors open, there is no polite waiting for passengers to get off, but a mass push to get on and possibly find a seat. If you happen to be on board trying to get off at a busy station it is best to wear some football pads and get a running start if you expect to get off.

It isn't that the Chinese don't have any courtesy. In fact I have seen guys punch their way on board so they could get a seat, only to give up that seat when an elderly person, or someone with a small child gets on at the next stop. Fighting crowds seems to be in their genes. While I face the madness with a grimace and a curse, the Chinese seem to consider fighting for some small place in the chaos business as usual and take it all in course.

I'm sure when I go home I'll find all sorts of frustrating situations where I'm behind some slow person, or I'll find myself in some long line that seems to never end. I do love the Chinese and have enjoyed my time in Shanghai. Yet I can't say I'm not looking forward to moving back to rural Oklahoma where I can sit gazing on a long stretch of green, and not see a single person for miles around.

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