Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Rush hour

Rush hour

On the Beijing underground, rule number one is: disobey all the rules in the mad rush to ensure you get a seat. In his termly diary on life in China, Tim Andrew describes the action.

Whichever way you slice China, you find a paradox. For example, one-to-one the Chinese are the most thoughtful, considerate, friendly, helpful people. En masse, the picture can be slightly different.

The Chinese don't queue anywhere: they just form loose huddles in which it's every man for himself; on the roads they ruck and maul with their cars.

Getting a seat on the subway in Beijing is an art form. The trains stop at precisely the same place on the platform each time. Arrows indicate that the space immediately in front of the doors should be left clear for passengers to get off. But Beijingers take as little notice of the arrows as they do of one way street signs, driving on the right or anything else designed to bring a little sense of order into daily life.

So they form a blob of humanity at the point where the doors will be, making only the concession of standing behind the yellow line. (Even the Chinese prefer missing a seat to decapitation by a passing train...just.)

The smooth operators affect interest in a poster or their paper, all the time calculating the move that will ensure their arrival at the front of the blob just as the train arrives. The train arrives, doors open, everyone surges on. There are, of course a few souls trying to get off; they must just take their chance.

The art form is seen at in its highest expression where Line 1 meets the Batong extension that runs to Tongzhou, where I live. It is necessary to change trains, and the authorities have thoughtfully provided an overlap of two stations to spread congestion.

No Beijinger is fooled by this: to wait to change at the second station is to guarantee standing room only. As the train approaches the first interchange station, manoeuvring to get close to the doors takes place.

The train reaches the station, the doors open, and...they're off! I've never seen a closely packed mass of humanity surge at such a speed. Up the stairs, across the transfer hall, down the stairs and onto the platform.

One day, I've promised myself, I'm going to get myself into the middle of this crowd and test my theory that I'll be able to lift my feet off the ground and be carried along, held in the air by the sheer pressure of bodies around me.

On Line 1 there's no train in the station, so the waiting-where-thedoors- will-open routine begins, with the added knowledge that this time that there won't be any pesky people already on the train to spoil the pure, clean sport of beating your neighbour to a seat. The train arrives, the doors open and no quarter is given.

They just brazenly dash for a seat, worming through the crowd, using elbows, knees, umbrellas. No trick is too raw to pull. No one gets angry: it's just the way it's done. And there is no rush hour, just a rush day. It's always like this, even at 8 o'clock on a Sunday morning.

The Chinese game is put into context by my experience at New York Penn station, catching the Arcela 'express' to Washington DC 18 months ago.

The same surge takes place, but with the added complication of large quantities of luggage. The train is 20 minutes late, giving the human swarm time to gather and become impatient; there's a lot of anger about.

They make all the right noises, but the undercurrent when you ask a question is, "Are you so stupid you don't know that?" For example I hadn't signed my ticket. To the inspector this is a symptom of my crass ignorance and his contempt is barely concealed.

Give me Beijingers anytime; at least the rule is clear: nobody obeys the rules if they can get away with it, but nobody gets angry either. It's just the way it is: all is calm and polite.

Tim Andrew was formerly a head in Buckinghamshire and is now working in a school in Beijing.

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