Transportation in China has proven to be full of unpredictable and thrilling experiences. We have skidded around dozens of potholes in the Sangke Grasslands, gone on long bus rides along the sides of cliffs, grown to know the smell of bullet-train ramen noodles, shoved our way onto the overflowing 85 bus, and narrowly avoided hordes of electric scooters (or not, in Elly’s case). Drivers seemed to be either one hour early or one hour late, and bathroom stops on bus trips always consisted of a series of holes in the ground in a neat line, with partial walls between the holes if you were lucky. I quickly learned how to avoid eye contact at all costs.
Recently, I had a new transportation adventure. Two weekends ago, my family and I rode the Kunming subway for the first time since I arrived. The Kunming subway was only built about two years ago, so people prefer the far more extensive and convenient bus system. We frequently rode the subway in Chengdu, Xi’an, and a couple of times in Beijing, so I had some sense of what to expect. I knew it would be clean and modern, with a nice bathroom and countless signs. I was surprised, however, when I descended the stairs and entered a Chengdu subway stop. I hadn’t apparated from Kunming to back to Chengdu like Harry Potter, but this subway was exactly the same as Chengdu’s. My family, still amateur subway passengers, couldn’t figure out where the entrance to our train was, so I easily led them to it. The security guards had the name of the local police force printed on their uniforms, which was the only difference from Chengdu’s subway that I saw on my entire trip. Also, the people were more excited about riding the trains and the security guards were not asleep; I attributed this to the excitement of the newness of it all.
Subways in China are not at all similar to the New York City subway I have grown up with. A plastic wall with automatic doors installed at regular intervals blocks the subway track from the platform. There are at least nine arrows at each of these doors indicating how you are supposed to walk if you’re getting on the train, and how you’re supposed to walk if you’re getting off. More lines of arrows cover the floor in various directions, showing you how to walk once you have completed following the arrows by the doors. Green arrows and red crosses are displayed over staircases and on entrance and exit gates. You can use certain staircases to go upstairs, different ones to go down, certain gates to enter the subway, and others to exit. The arrows are the key to navigating this puzzle. “Please enjoy your civilized travel” and “Civilized Kunming” (the Chinese pinyin, wenming Kunming, is a nice rhyme) are printed on and behind the plastic doors. Digital advertisements play on the windows and on screens in the train cars as you ride.
People follow the arrows they have to, but ignore others. Despite the signs calling for civilized travel, a wave of rushing and pushing commences when the doors open. There are too many people to not rush and push when you’re trying to get anywhere in a big Chinese city. The subways are a stark representation of the dichotomies prevalent in the rest of life in China. Modern Chinese culture is infatuated with Western life but also despises Western power. Tradition and modernization go head to head, as do extreme poverty and fast-growing wealth. The Communist values of community- having a civilized subway trip and working with others- collides with personal ambition- pushing people on the platform to get your spot on the train. The government openly tries to control every way their people act and think, but the people push back.