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Daily Commute, Beijing

December 15, 2010

by Sarah Menkedick

The pusher-men laughed. They wore the faded wing-tip shoes and raggedy suits of worn-down migrants, but their hair betrayed their youth. Cut in zigzagged anime styles or gelled into the form of a surprised porcupine, it made them look slightly edgy.

When the train came, though, their mouths firmed into lines. They shoved and shouted things, the constant monosyllabic imperatives of Chinese. The language still sounded like one firm, inscrutable black character after another to me.

I let them push and closed my eyes a little. They threw their weight into their shoulders and hurled themselves against the last frontier of people on the naked edge of the car, as if nudging a particularly stubborn bookcase. Passengers further in rustled around a little with some barely audible grunting and sighing. Miniscule pockets of space opened up for hands, knees. I sunk an inch or two further into the car, enough for the doors to close and the train to whisk us off.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Beijing subway!” intoned the friendly-voiced young woman, probably cherry-lipped and university-educated like most Chinese women chosen for these jobs, on the intercom. “The next stop is Andingmen station.”

The voice had a stilted rise and fall that mimicked the tones of Mandarin; it must be hard to shake those sharp ups, downs, and stops, especially when they carry so much meaning. Traces of them linger in English, making the intercom voice both touchingly flawed and robotic.

As the train pulsed through those dark silent tunnels, people gathered themselves into their own self-shaped bubbles of space, concentrating on some interior concern — the new baby, the silence where there should’ve been a phone call — while letting the rest of their beings be subsumed into the crowd. There seemed to be the thinnest wisp of air above everyone’s head, as if we were a bunch of floating suspended fish with our bubble-mouths poised on the ocean’s surface. People’s faces curved up. Five or six bodies were pressed to mine; five or six pairs of shoes pointed in different directions on the car floor like compasses gone awry. Briefcases, bags, sweaters on arms, were rendered still and immobile by the crush. For that moment in time, we were a mass, a mass of a thousand similar parts and one collective held breath.

At first on these rides I’d close my eyes and imagine what I’d do if there was a fire, a terrorist attack, an earthquake. I’d position myself close to a pole and tell myself to let go of everything else and hang onto it with the single-mindedness of a barnacle. Everyone and everything would swirl around me in great devastating rushes of chaos, and when it was all over I’d open my eyes, still clinging to the pole, and pick my way out. The whole scenario — earthquake, chaos, pole plan in action, diminishing panic, and eventual release — lasted me all the way from Dongzhimen station to Guomao, when the thousands upon thousands of people in the train pored out and streamed through the tunnels of the city’s busiest station, shaking off the confinement of the crowd with purposeful haste.

But one day, maybe when I was particularly tired or more open than usual, I submitted to the crush of bodies, let it carry and contain me. It was winter; everyone had to shrug off coats and scarves as quickly as possible so as not to shed five pounds of water weight during the journey to the Central Business District. My face was chapped from Beijing’s winter wind. Warm bodies pressed in on all sides — I could feel the curve of a torso, the rounded toughness of a thigh. It verged on the sexual, but the comfortingly sexual, the mutual arcs of spooning bodies, the ceding of one part to another. There was a total, obligatory submissiveness, everyone giving way to everyone else because there was no other option, and I suddenly found relief in that. So much of daily life in China is ducking or fighting or easing one’s way through crowds, at the supermarket, at the train station, in the bike lanes. For me, for many people that have grown up in resolutely individualist countries, this was an act of constant resistance. Trying to separate or save oneself from the masses. But in the train I gave in, for once relaxed into the mass instead of bristling at it, and it felt good. My head lolled back and forth, sometimes accidentally bumping the fake fur collars of the Chinese office girls’ coats.

When the train stopped at Chongwenmen and Jianguomen for transfers I went with the flood of people, taking one careful step at a time because at that moment in Beijing, when the subway price had been reduced to 2 yuan, millions and millions of Chinese were taking the underground trains for the first time. There was a calming ritual about those measured, timed steps, limited by the heel of the person in front of me and the tips of the toes of the person behind me, in tune with the slow, inevitable forward motion of the masses. There was a liberating humility in it — without the option of scurrying through the tunnels, my flats padding anxiously on the slick tiled floors, Stereolab pounding on the iPod, I stepped slowly and in tune with thousands of other steps.

When we finally came to Guomao and the crush gave way to a surge of released energies, I regained the pressure of forward motion and scampered up the steep, endless staircases towards the street. Gusts of wind rushed down the stairs and did their best to blast into Guomao station, but the crowd stopped them. The further up the stairs I got, the stronger the wind grew, until finally I was on the street and wrapping my face in a scarf, buying a tea egg for breakfast, hustling towards work, missing the safe restricted warmth of the crowd.


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Sarah Menkedick is a writer and editor who has spent the last six years living, traveling, and teaching abroad. This fall, she returned to the U.S. to start the MFA program in creative nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the editor in chief of Glimpse.org, a contributing editor at Matador Abroad and a contributing writer at Change.org. She lets her creative nonfiction run wild at her personal website, PosaTigres.

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  1. erm ...
    January 5, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    “Inscrutable” Chinese?

    Paging Dr. Freud …

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