Shanghai Journey: One Stop at a Time

Sandy Wongwaiwate



        A foreign student at Fudan University chronicles one action-filled trip back to campus on Shanghai’s famous Metro network, which she describes as the city’s veins. She meets a lot of types of people along the way, including the rushing grandmas, parents with kids, quiet students, and more. This story is an insight into the etiquette that comes with riding the world’s largest subway network which, for anyone living and working in Shanghai — and even those who make a short visit — knows firsthand. The story is well-written and interesting.

My destination is Jiangwan Stadium Station on Line 10, which stops near Fudan University. My journey back to the dorms begins at East Nanjing Road Station, one of the hallmarks of Shanghai. Just like the bustling pedestrian street above ground, the subway station is equally vibrant, teeming with beaming tourists loaded with Zara shopping bags, exhausted salarymen fresh out of the office, and others like me who are satisfied with the day’s adventure and looking forward to home. Today, I find myself fortunately queuing up at the front of the line. A quick glance at the screen tells me in one minute the subway will arrive. I brace myself. Rush hour in Shanghai is not a child’s game, especially in the subway. I spy two ayisin the corner of my eye making their way to the front. The “queue” quickly transforms into a mob. Suddenly, we all realize there is no such thing as a line when you need to get on the subway. The ayis, although small in stature, had eyes like steel, warily flitting from side to side, calculating who they had to beat in order to get a coveted seat on this subway. It’s a battlefield down here. The subway carriage swooshes by and slows down to a stop. Doors smoothly open. Just as I stick my right foot out to step into the carriage, I feel a strong determined push from my left.At last, I lose to the ayis’sharp elbows that nudge me forcefully away from the entrance. In the few precious seconds it takes for me to squeeze inside, the bench is full. Shoot.

I make a beelineinstead for the corner of the carriage. Standing in this corner, on one side I am bordered by the automatic doors while on the other side the wall turns a corner, essentially allowing me to stand free from jostling strangers or wandering hands. As the signal on top of the door began tobeep and flash, the last few commuters manage to squeeze between the double doors. They reveal brief triumphant smiles before realizing that there are no seats left. Too bad, I muse, getting a seat is like finding gold. Probably even harder. I close my eyes and lean back into the corner with a soft sigh of relief. At least, for these nine stopsout of the city, I have my own little world on the subway in Shanghai. 

Two stops down. I pry my sleepy eyes open and spot a young mother making a move to get up with her crying son.  With lightning speed, I place myself in front of her. The child squirms restlessly in her lap, wanting to reach over and grab the nearby passenger’s iPhone. As the mother drags her son off the bench, I slip nimbly into her seat. I give myself a pat on the back for scoring such a great feat as a flood of passengers pour inside. I pretend not to notice jealous office workers eyeing the seat bench. However, an old shushustraggling in right as the doors close catches my eye. I hold my breath. I am sitting in the middle of the bench. On my right, a young student is intensely manipulating his miniaturewarrior along a grass path towards a metal tower, thumbs flying at lightning speed. I glance to my left. A middle-aged woman is obliviously enjoying a TV drama on her phone, attention already a million miles away in some wonderland. I scan the people on my bench. All heads down, all fully occupied with whatever it was on their screens, blissfully ignoring the “Courtesy Seat” sign pasted right in plain sight above the bench. The shushuglances hopefully around just in case, but everyone including me is not yet ready to give up our precious seats. He sighs and shuffles shakily away to take up a post near the door. I squirm uncomfortably. Six stops to go.

Halfway there. I give up trying to find something interesting on my phone. Or pretending to look for nonexistent WeChat messages to reply to since I already took care of all of them. Everyone else is staring so intently at their phones I feel like I also should be doing the same. Instead, I pull out a novel from my bag. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. As I flip the pages to where I left of, some of the eyes nearby glance my way, suddenly intrigued by the rare sight of white pages and black lines. Just like the one time I was studying some Chinese vocab words in a notebook on the subway, a random foreigner struck up a conversation, expressing her excitement of seeing a fellow foreigner in Shanghai going through the struggle of learning Chinese. I had left the subway that time feeling surprisingly refreshed by the encounter. Maybe one day a Chinese person will ask me what I am reading. Just a few words, so we can have a conversation. Four stops to go. 

Two stops away. The doors slide open and a new wave of people frantically push in, only to be disappointed by the sight of full benches. I’m still in the middle. Straggling in just as the doors slide shut is an older ayi, clutching two heavy grocery bags. Her face is etched with lines of tiredness, possibly from having to carry such a load all the way from the grocery store, probably weary from always having to elbow her way to the front because she knows none of these people will give her a seat. Before she succumbs to her plight near the wall, I stand up abruptly. With a small smile, I gesture for her to sit down. She seems surprised at first by this unexpected act and then bobs a xiexiebefore settling herself into the seat. I slip away to the corner near the door. Almost there.

Arriving. But just as I am about to walk out onto the platform, an unexpectedly huge crowd swarms in. I lose balance and the crowd’s momentum pushes me back into the carriage. I hesitate. Can I push through? Should I push through? As the door signal starts beeping, I hear a voice beside me telling me to go for it. Jiayou!I power forward. Somehow, I end up safe and sound on the platform and the subway swooshed away. Flustered yet relieved, I move towards the escalators to make my way up to the exits. Before I could scramble up the steps, a soft touch stops me. A lone Chinese middle-aged lady with a concerned look asks me which direction she should go to reach this station. She shows me a crumpled handwritten note. I smile reassuringly and direct her to the right side of the platform. Listen for the announcement to change lines, I tell her. Her fangyanis definitely from somewhere in the south of China. I head upstairs.

The Shanghai subway is an interesting place. Sweaty European touristspoint at signs and argue over directions to return back to their hotel, while next to them out-of-town Chinese visitors bicker over which line to take to reach their relatives. A foreigner in a business suit helps a young Chinese merchant carry a large lumpy package down the stairs. Snippets of Cantonese, French, Thai and Shanghainese mingle in the air as the announcement in the intercom uses Mandarin and English to notify commuters that the train has arrived. The subway is simultaneously modern and classic, just as Shanghai is a place of old and new¾where selected pieces of history are preserved while others are torn down to make room for the glass skyscrapers of the sprawling metropolis that Shanghai is known for today. The subway is always lively and bustling, with voices shouting to be heard over and as part of the crowd. The people in the subway are determined and competitive¾to reach their destination, to be in the front, and to survive. As I ride the veins of Shanghai, I witness the city opening its arms to me and to strangers from all over the world, educating us on its rich culture, values and traditions¾the good and the bad. Because for every time when I have to fight through a mob just to swipe myself out of the turnstile, when I get pushed aside without a buhaoyisi, I realize there is another young adult on the subway who will stand for the struggling ayi, and one who will help a confused waidirenon how to navigate the subway card machine. Andas I exit out of the station andspy the Yidiandianstore nearby, I know there’s something definitely special about this place. Finally arrived.