- Posted October 14, 2012 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Life in China
Don’t Bring Your Crossbow On The Subway In Chongqing
Living in Asia for the past eight years, I’ve gotten used to using public transportation, first in Japan, now in China.
Taking the subway in China is quite different from Japan. Getting on board in Japan is mainly a matter of knowing were you are going and keeping moving, as everyone is always in a hurry. But in China, as you descend the stairs to the station, the first thing you have to remember to do is watch out for large gobs of spit on the stairs, as it’s a favorite place for Chinese men to do their ear-wracking loud hocking sound of clearing their throats and dropping a big one before they get on board.
Then there is the Chinese security check, a kind of abbreviated version of the airport inspections we have all come to love and adore. This one is a simple X-ray of your bag, so no biggie.
But the signage regarding what not to bring on board is a real jolt if you actually read it. For example, “Officials” are advised to not bring their “submachine guns” among other weapons. “Crossbows” are just one of many items also specifically mentioned as being a no-no, as are “radioisotopes.”
Some of this has to do with the general bizarre quality of English signage in both China and Japan. But in China in particular, its related to both the discourse characteristics of the language and the nature of freedom here.
Chinese is a Low Context Language. This means it is not considered rude to be extremely blunt and direct. A friend might greet you and say, “Oh, you’re looking fat today.”
But perhaps more pertinently, the idea of what is personal freedom in everyday life is different in China from what most Westerners who have never lived here think.
Chinese people work very hard for low salaries. And many people are self-employed. On the streets, you will see many, many micro entrepreneurs selling just about everything. People just sit down and set up shop. And there is a surprising amount of latitude given to behavior, so long as one does not criticize the government.
For example, if taxi drivers think the price of gasoline is too high they will stage a protest by blocking traffic. Nobody shoots them and usually it results in some kind of action, like a quickly adopted fuel subsidy. In China, people basically just start doing something until someone tells them to stop. So the subway sign spells out everything possible you can’t bring on board because otherwise somebody might actually try to do it.
Many signs are enthusiastically ignored. For example, at the loading area in front of each subway car door, there are arrows on the floor, two on the sides pointing into the subway car, two in the middle pointing out. This is to impose some kind of order on the rush to get on and get off when the doors swoosh open. In Japan, people waiting to get on dutifully line up on the side arrows so the passengers exiting the train can flow out the middle. In China, everyone simply crowds up in a big ball and rams their way onboard through the outward flow.
Mercifully, there is one signage edict on the subway that is actually followed: people don’t smoke in subway cars. They do, however, ignore “no smoking” signs everywhere else, including in dining areas and restrooms—and sometimes in gyms.
One other difference in the subways between Japan and China is that in China, people don’t sleep on board. In Japan, at almost any time of day, if you look around, a high percentage of passengers will be sleeping. “Japan’s bedroom,” as my friend put it. Maybe the Chinese are worried about pickpockets, the lurking presence of whom I am constantly being reminded of by my Chinese friends.
So when you ride the subway in China, watch your step as you go down the stairs, keep your bags zipped up and your wallet close, don’t expect orderly queue lines, and leave your crossbow at home along with your submachine gun and radioisotopes.