The Beijing Subway is Making Me an Asshole

Crowd on the Beijing Subway

It’s May, but the temperature at noon is already 38C. The air is damp with rush hour sweat.

We pull into a major interchange. Soon a deluge like an average day at Disneyland is going to spill onto escalators and into hallways. Standing at the centre of the car doors, a young lady watches a big Qing dynasty drama on a small screen.

Behind her in the corral the bulls are restless. The gate is going to be pulled open. And this clown is about to be trampled.

She’s decided, instead of stepping outside for 30 seconds to let the herd pass, she’s going to rodeo with one hand on a bar as she bucks and bounces off people left and right. First her shoulder is dislocated. Then her arm is torn off. As her body is carried away, boarding passengers file around the hanging limb. Fingers ending in pink nail polish still grip tightly.

And the entire time I am screaming, “Jesus Christ, step off. STEP OFF! ‘


Somewhere, maybe in my dreams, maybe in Tokyo, there exists a perfect transit ride. Riders form peaceful platform lines. Smiling attendants massage pliant bodies into cars, allotting each a snug but sufficient two square feet. Gentlemen tip their hats to ladies, children sleep like lambs, and everyone parts, as for royalty, as an elderly couple is led to their seats.

I’ve never been to Tokyo, so I can only stereotype Japanese stoicism as riders are stuffed into glistening aluminum maglev sardine cans by dainty white gloves.

No, I live in Beijing. And during the hour on Line 1 between Pingguoyuan and Guomao I transform into the biggest asshole in the city.

On an average weekday over 10 million riders battle for seats, for space, and for fresh air. In a city of 21 million, half that number are herded underground every day.

The initial assumption is that any such mass of organisms in a confined space is going to be trouble. Credit due to the Chinese, I’ve never seen a fight. But there are more than a few assholes, and I count myself among them. Only the luxury of speaking a language largely forgotten or outright unlearned lets me get away with this level of swearing. But, to promote cross-cultural dialogue I have adopted the local style of teeth sucking from the front when annoyed, opposed to a more Canadian at-the-molar style.

Stupefying Moments on the Beijing Subway

Entry and Exit Procedures

First noticed by any visitor to the capital is the courtesy of those boarding and alighting from the train. Or, better, the lack of. At the doors of each car, painted in cautionary yellow, lines show where riders should exit and where riders should queue. Announcements give clear instructions:

  1. Doors to open
  2. Passengers to get off.
  3. Passengers to get on.

I have not once witnessed this procedure. Neither on an empty Sunday morning nor a packed Wednesday afternoon. In actuality:

  1. Doors open.
  2. Chaos.

Inside the quarterback is going to attempt running play, squeezing between a pair of defensive linemen. At the same time, the lines on the outside field a pincer movement, circling the opposing team to capture empty space behind them. During rush hour teams have 90 seconds to push across the line before yellow-jacketed referees come and mumble into shoulder slung loudspeakers to break up the play.

Which do I hate myself more for? Choosing to be an asshole when I broaden my shoulders and bowl people over for space on my way out? Or being forced to be an asshole by the wave pushing in, out of fear of missing my chance to board the train at all?

Use of Space

Once inside, where it is every man and woman for themselves, I can detach from the herd and make my way to the centre. Unless the head rider has decided that he is going to grab the first empty space he can. He’s figured out that when he gets off it will be convenient to be right beside the doors. No matter if his stop comes 15 stations and 70 minutes later. Two steps over the gap and he latches onto a handle, turning to blink stupidly at you behind headphones, as if he is shocked to see seven dozen other people who might want to get on.

If that’s not enough, the second rider has the same genius idea, and takes the second available space beside her Mensa colleague. And so on until the doorway is stopped up like hair in a drain, and the rest have to plunge on the wad of soap scum and keratin to restart the flow.

And in the back is this grumpy Canadian giving grumbling orders in a vain attempt to keep the shit flowing.


Getting on at the beginning of the line is no help. You’d think, as you bound down the stairs, that having two trains pointing downtown would save you from having to stand for the length of a double LP. But the seats come pre-stocked from the factory with farmers carrying potato sacks from poles, Chinese businessmen in their uniform of polo shirt, black slacks, cheap shoes, and everywhere people watching dramas. Korean love dramas, ancient history dramas, revolutionary war dramas.

The real drama comes as people watch for a newly emptied seat. Focused, they twitch like gunmen on the draw. And an open seat is like contested territory  between posses. A rider’s ass comes up a half of an inch and the fighters make their move. Time slows down to a crawl. The departing passenger moves upwards a click, and the first contestant bends first at the waist, then at the knees, to mimic the shape of the rising passenger. He’s going to pull the old Tetris slide, locking pieces right underneath the guy getting up.

Too slow! Turning to the right, I catch a granny flying through the air across the bank of seats. She’s sliding home, one arm outstretched to claim the seat before Tetris man. All of us on the bench, we put our arms out and the granny crowd surfs her way to sneak a hand under the rising ass.

Catching the flying granny on my lap, an inner battle rages between wanting to curse her out and wanting to make sure she gets to her seat with her dentures intact. I don’t know enough language to simply be an asshole, just enough to be a vulgar prick, so the only other choice is, “Be careful, grandmother.”


The asshole thing to do at this point would be to make generalizations based on a half a year of travel. The Chinese have such-and-such historical experiences, resulting in such-and-such cultural practices.

What concerns me more are the little compromises I choose to make which are transforming me into an asshole. Pushing for space. Judging whether this old lady is 47 and fuck her and her bent back, or 52 and deserving of my hard won seat. Counting change in front of kabob sellers and fighting over uncooked chicken wings worth 30 cents. Staring at a gin and tonic and wondering if it is cheap and fake or cheap and poisonous. Demanding a recount on $35 for a year of cable because I can’t watch any more Chinese karaoke shows. Snorting up a great horks of Beijing pollution and spitting the miasma into the street like Deng Xiaoping into his spittoon.

There are really only two choices. Try to show people the right way, thereby being a condescending asshole. Or just be a regular local-style asshole.

I am an asshole because I am turning into the other assholes here. And, I am an asshole because I kinda like it.

Photo Credit: pamhule via Compfight cc