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03.03.2007

National Day

How sad to be a crab in China! A turtle or catfish can at least swim free in its murky tank, waiting for the Inevitable to come sashaying through the restaurant door, but a crab must spend the long period between being plucked from his pelagic home and being served in a beautiful but impossible-to-eat-with-chopsticks dish all bondaged up in a fancy twine knot. You can often see these live crabs artfully stacked in baskets or tubs at the local seafood market, angry and immobile.

So I was happy to share a train car with an unusual, free-range crab on National Day. It was the first day of the misnamed week-long national vacation and both of us were going to Tianjin, a city not far from Beijing. I was just barely seated on a steep little staircase leading down into the car; he was resting comfortably in his metal tray. Every ten minutes or so one of his traveling companions would lift him out of the tray and make him menace another passenger with his pinchers, to general laughter. Then he would go back in the pan. He looked tired and dry; I couldn't imagine he was in for a good night in Tianjin.

My own prospects were much rosier. I was on my way to the airport to fly to the southeast coast of China, where I had booked a short holiday in Xiamen. Leaving from Tianjin let me save money over a Beijing departure while also giving me the chance to rub elbows (and every other part of my body) with the massive crowds of people who would be traveling on National Day. This was the morning when everyone in China would live up to stereotype by simultaneously trying to switch places. At some point, drunk, booking my ticket for this date had seemed like a fun way to “learn more about China”, a catchall phrase that seems to correlate suspiciously well with some really bad travel decisions.

"How bad could it get?" I thought.

The first ominous chords sounded during the subway ride into town. It was shortly before eight in the morning and already the cars at my outlying station were packed dense with people and their backpacks, all of us converging on the city center. At the big transfer stop at Xizhimen, barricades had been set up to channel the river of humanity safely into the station. The lab-coated ticket ladies had even taken the extraordinary step of emerging into the light to collect tickets outside, blinking under an unfamiliar sun.

It took me a while to get used to Chinese crowd dynamics, where the imperative is to squeeze through without regard for personal space. I suffered through a lot of uncomfortable subway rides this summer before it occurred to me to apply a strategy I learned my cat - first push the nose through, then one paw, then the other paw, applying steady pressure until you get where you need to be (on the lap, in the suitcase, under the fitted sheet, into the subway car). The thought had never occurred to me during frantic rush hours at Penn Station, but no matter how dense crowds get in New York City, there was still an aversion to actual physical contact with strangers. People tried to tuck themselves in and act invisible. This was not the case at all in Beijing, where you are expected to contribute bodily effort to help move the crowd along. If you get angry when strangers press up against you, then here you will find yourself angry a great deal of the time. Learning to ignore it is as difficult as it is liberating.

Local masters have developed strategies for navigating these crowds, such as holding out toddler grandchildren before them like Moses holding out his staff, or else clutching a heavy suitcase at chest height to increase their inertia and penetrating power. Older people from the provinces, who are very short even by Chinese standards (a silent but uncensorable history lesson) are especially ruthless at exploiting gaps in the understory. Lift your hand to scratch your nose and you may find a sudden trickle of grandmothers, holding hands, squeezing through the small space you left vacant. No one gets knocked down and the trains still somehow run on time, but it is certainly a breathtaking experience.

It took me four months to learn to stop constantly apologizing and plow on through. For all the mayhem, people play it clean (no elbowing or stepping on feet), and the game is remarkably impersonal. Even such rage-inducing phenomena as a dozen construction workers carrying a dozen enormous bales of rags into the subway, taking up all available space, seem to be accepted as accidents of a capricious Fate rather than as anything someone could influence or change (by yelling, for example).

The crowd waiting for the Tianjin train at the Beijing station was the densest I had ever seen. As I skirted its edge I was actually injected into it by the pressure of the people walking behind me. We formed a dense, semi-regular lattice extending some twenty meters out from the platform doors. Once in a while you could feel things moving at knee level, as suitcases and small children bounced around in between the immobilized adults.

When the doors opened it was literally impossible to move, and yet I found myself propelled along down the stairway, miraculously obeying the Navier-Stokes equations even though I am in fact quite bad at math. Somewhere on the platform a small eddy of us detached far enough for people to begin to move freely, and I pushed my way into the nearest train car, finding a stairstep to sit on right across from that lonesome crab.

People whose tickets actually matched the train's correct time and destination moved through the cars like happy lottery winners, claiming their seats and chasing off the squatters who had settled on every available surface. As we rolled out of the station, the situation stabilized, with everybody either in a seat or wedged in somewhere where they could stand or lean for ninety minutes without being knocked over. There seemed to be no spot where one could actually place a foot, yet by the routine miracle I've come to expect in Chinese crowds all kinds of business went on, ticket-takers coming and going, people floating to and from the bathrooms, even snack vendors who nonchalantly steered enormous baskets of food through the cars, taking orders and bringing back hot and cold dishes from God only knows what kind of a kitchen.

There was an equally impressive crowd waiting for the train at Tianjin, where strict crowd control measures (consisting of a hastily-rigged clothesline and a teenager with epaulets and a megaphone) had been put into place. The atmosphere was festive and hundreds of enormous mooncake boxes, miraculously uncrushed, punctuated the crowd with their bright red color. I found a Muslim street meat roaster and stood for a while eating dubious kebabs, wondering what would become of my friend the crab. But I couldn't think of good outcome, and I had to put it out of my mind.

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