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Tales of the 573: Bus Etiquette in China

By Paul Ross.



On the 573, an empty seat doesn’t stay empty for very long, even if the seat is next to another one that is also empty. If you want one of them, you have to move fast otherwise one of your fellow passengers will most certainly get there first. And when he does, I can guarantee that he will take the outside seat, effectively blocking access to the seat unoccupied. 



Grabbing the aisle seat like that while leaving the one by the window stranded is a move that would not be tolerated in a New York or a Paris where a passenger who even contemplated such a thing would in short order be shamed by his fellow passengers into moving to the seat by the window.  On the 573 (or, for that matter, any other bus in China), I have never seen any passenger who has taken the aisle seat and blocked the seat by the window exhibit the slightest bit of discomfort or remorse. Nor, to my knowledge, has anyone ever raised an objections to this practice much less raised an eyebrow in disapproval.



As to what accounts for the “stranded seat” phenomenon, a number of hypotheses have been put forth that range from the socio-cultural to the purely practical.  The more practical and, arguably, most selfish reason is that people want to make it as easy as possible for themselves to get off the bus when it reaches their stop. They don’t want to be bothered with climbing on or around someone else in the process which they would have had to do if they had taken the seat by the window. A passenger sitting by the window, especially in Summer, is more directly exposed to the sun’s rays,  which can make for an uncomfortably hot ride not to mention the potential health hazard.  From a socio-cultural standpoint, those living in China, in general,  have a greater tolerance for a more restricted personal space than those in less populated places might have. So the close physical contact that comes from getting into and out of an empty seat by the window might not be regarded as as much of an inconvenience by the local passengers as it would be by passengers on buses in large cities outside of China.


Another unique aspect of local etiquette applies to the way passengers make their way off the bus. The broadcast announcement of a bus’s pending arrival at its next stop is the signal that sets in motion a complex maneuvering. Passengers who want to get off the bus begin to push their way towards the door shouting ‘huan yi xia, huan yi xia” (change places, change places !) obliging those closest to the door to move out of the way. Like the interlocking pieces of a Rubik’s cube, the two groups slide past each other as they move to fill the spaces that are being vacated. 



This ‘pas de deux’ is difficult to execute on a bus that at peak hour is crowded to overcapacity and is particularly disruptive on a bus in motion when fare cards are being passed up and down the aisles and passengers are already struggling to keep their footing.  I personally find it difficult to appreciate the urgency that motivates this moving and shifting and fail to understand why some passengers feel it’s necessary to put so many others to such great inconvenience just so they can secure a pole position for themselves when the doors open.  



In my experience, when the passengers who are already closest to the door begin to make their way off a path naturally opens up that makes it possible for those who standing further back to get off quickly and usually with plenty of time to spare. To prove the point, I’ve made calculations. From the time the door opens at any given stop to the time it closes an average of 1 minutes and 53 seconds has elapsed.  A passenger standing within ten meters of the door, a distance that  roughly speaking covers midway to the back of the bus, can comfortably make his way off in 46 seconds, even on a bus that is at full capacity. It is clear from this analysis that under normal operating conditions not only does a passenger have sufficient time to get off from a starting point anywhere on the bus, but that there is still ample time left – 1 minute and 7 seconds, to be exact.


The way you should address yourself to the driver (to complain about his driving skills, for example) also follows a certain etiquette. The official mechanism for expressing one’s views is a notebook marked ‘Suggestions and Comments” that hangs suspended from a hook by the driver’s seat.  The book’s yellowing cover and dog-eared pages suggest that it is provided more to meet a specific design specification and round out the decor than to be used in any meaningful way.



In practice, no one ever engages the driver except, perhaps, to inquire about the route or the fare. I have found by trial and no small amount of error that the most acceptable way to share feedback is to preface the feedback with the words “wo you yi ge xiao jianyi”.   (“I have a small suggestion”) .  This phrase, in particular its inclusion of the word “xiao” (small), expresses a humility that will make even the most belligerent  driver more receptive.



The other evening I was on the 573 heading home. The bus had just rounded the corner on its return route up Jinqiao Road when a man who had taken the aisle seat and left the window seat empty suddenly reached up and began tugging on my sleeve pointing to the open seat next to him. My inclination was to refuse the offer, as well-intentioned as it was. I wasn’t so desperate to have a seat that I was willing to climb over someone to get to it.  But in this case, much to my astonishment, the man moved over to the seat by the window, ceding the prized outside seat.  I still didn’t take him up on the offer because I found his uncommon behavior suspicious. He was too solicitous. After further reflection, I came to the conclusion that the man was perhaps a harbinger of change in traditional bus etiquette that was still too new and unexpected to be appreciated for what it was.





Paul Ross is a telecommunications executive who has worked in China for more than 10 years. He has written numerous articles for hi-tech publications such as Wireless Week and Red Herring.





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