I have not lived very far from my place of work for about ten years. In fact I haven’t commuted any distance on a tube since I first left the UK to work in Hong Kong in 1997. These musings occurred to me as I stood pressed around by sweaty bodies at 7:30am on Monday morning, about halfway through my hour-plus underground journey to Peking University. It turns out I am travelling across all of Beijing from the south east to the north westernmost corner to attend my latest course, which makes me even happier that I opted for dorm accommodation at Tsinghua.
As I headed home from registration last Sunday night, after passing by my erstwhile digs to pick up my bike and drop into the canteen for an old times’ dinner, I already wished I could fall out of bed into my classroom the following day. The thought of getting home at 10pm only to have journey all the way back again at 7am was not a happy one. I can now see why I was depressed travelling twice a day between East Putney and my first job at St Paul’s: it is such a futile exercise, even assuming you are enthusiastic about the job once you get in.
The fact that I am “tall” enough here not to be wedged under someone’s armpit is a boon, but somewhat offset by the prevalence of garlic in the local diet. The humidity means I’ve had more than one sweaty armpit make the journey across my bare arm instead of resting itself on my head. Hard to know which is worse.
Still, fellow commuters, while displaying the customary single minded determination to reach their goal even at the expense of logic, have been quite kind. One young chap beside me, observing that I was struggling with the clips on my rucksack, gently removed my hands and clipped them up himself. As a seat emptied partway through another journey and I leapt towards it, both the girl closer to the seat and I hesitated and offered it to the other. Good job there was no third party close enough to take advantage of our hesitant manners.
I return home from class at 3pm which is “offpeak”, not that you would know it. The only difference is the absence of the rush hour yellow-shirted “Guides for Public Civilisation”. Their presence is specifically to keep order around the doors: without the referees the shang-ers (boarders) and the xia-ers (disembarkers) surge for the opening all together and it can be a bruising, if brief, battle. Given that other habits anti-social for crowded enclosed spaces have been successfully eradicated, such as spitting, eating and carrying live chickens, it’s a wonder that something as logical as allowing space to empty before you try and fill it hasn’t yet caught on. Maybe it’s in the same category as baring your sweat-smelly belly to cool down: it suits me so even if it’s not nice for everyone else I’ll do it anyway.
Mind you, I would rather be on the tube than in a taxi parked on the fourth ringroad. Two days ago I found myself caged with a bored taxi driver going nowhere. In a bid to keep myself entertained and preempt any advances I invented a husband in response to his questioning – stupidly, however, back in the UK. The tactic showed signs of backfiring when the driver slyly built up to asking what I do about my sex life when I miss him. The meaning was obvious enough but I’ve never studied the vocab so I am happy to say I could legitimately tell him I didn’t understand the question. He was too oppressed by the heat and fed up to pursue it. For 5% of the price and avoidance of awkward conversations I’ll be sticking to the tube next week.