People-watching became a great hobby of mine over the summer.
It is not often that we experience the feeling of being packed like sardines in a can, but that’s how I felt every day in Shanghai. As the metro came to a stop, I could see long queues of people standing by the gate, a little too close to the edge, anxiously waiting for the transportation to halt and the door to open. The moment it did, a tsunami of people rushed in, fabrics rubbing against fabrics, skins brushing against skins, and limbs bumping against limbs — all the while with one hand clinging tightly to the purse and the other tightly around the pole.
Except in Japan, I had never seen a horde of people in a greater rush than these Shanghai residents. If the Japanese subway reminds me of an army of robots programmed to walk at a pace of three meters per second in an orderly fashion, the Chinese metro stations during busy times are like hordes of sheep being chased by wolves.
After a couple days of training, and anxiously observing the habits of those around me, I had learned some metro survival skills — for example, how not to fall in a moving metro without holding onto anything and without looking awkward. I won’t go into a tutorial, but leaning direction, bent knees, feet angle with the ground, and the gravitational position of body weight are all crucial factors. I had learned how to connect to the subway WiFi — a hard task to accomplish without a Chinese phone number. I’ve learned how to fall asleep amid noises and movements. I had learned how to wake up naturally at my destination stop. And most importantly, I had learned how to people-watch.
I saw the high school girl who was late to class, who probably also forgot to do her homework the night before. Why do I know that? She was wearing her high school uniform that said XX高校, and she was on the metro at 9:10 a.m. on a Monday while Chinese high schools usually start at 8:00 or 8:30 a.m.. She was sitting across from me, head down, scribbling as fast as she could over her workbook pages throughout her entire six-stop ride before she hurried off.
I saw the tired, sleepy, and perhaps hungover, middle-aged businessman on his way to work. He wore the classic businessman costume: black suit, blue tie, leather shoes. There was a nice looking fountain pen poking out of the suit’s top pocket, with a business card attached. He wore an expensive-looking watch and held a black briefcase. Though his attire and hairstyle stayed sharp, he clearly had some gray scratchy beard all over his face and deep dark circles under his eyes, which I assumed to result from continuous late night overtimes. The hungover part? Well, that’s merely a guess stemming from my understanding of the Chinese business-client culture.
I saw the family on their vacation (on a Wednesday?) — to Shanghai’s Disneyland, I heard. The kid, around five years old, kept asking his dad if he would see Mr. Potato come alive in his kitchen, if Aladdin could marry Belle instead because he didn’t like Jasmine, or if Elsa would choose to build an ice castle for him or shoot him down with her ice bow-and-arrow. The dad endured his questions for a while with babbles (apparently he wasn’t an expert), and when he was about to give up, a sharp bump in the subway sent the boy backwards into his mom. The mom terminated the one-sided conversation by reprimanding her son about how he should sit down properly and hold on to the pole: “How many times do I have to tell you…” As the boy became more serious, still squirming with excitement, I thought about how so many others (like me) would spend their days working away.
Then I saw a girl sitting right across from me, looking straight into my eyes. I stared her back. She seemed quite tired from the way she sat, slightly hunched over, one arm lying atop the back of the seat. She saw me noticing her sitting position and quickly adjusted her posture to look more composed. She was wearing casual clothing, with a pair of heels to spice up the look a bit. She had her hair draped over one shoulder, and at times braided it just to kill time. She seemed quite bored at first, probably because she sighed at the dark screen of her phone (ah, out-of-battery) and threw it in her purse. But moments later, she started looking attentively at the people around her, eyes shining with a keen interest that I'm all too familiar with — how fun it is to guess everyone's stories-of-the-day!
When she finished, she turned around and stared straight ahead into the black window — we looked into each other's eyes and smiled.