Whenever I tell people that I ride the bus to work, regardless if they are Chinese or foreign, they seem one part impressed and another part suspicious of my sanity. Most foreigners in China hate the bus and avoid it as much as possible, preferring instead to ride bikes, walk long distances, or take taxis.
After a week of commuting daily by bus during rush hour, I can understand why many foreigners prefer to take other modes of transportation.
- The crowds. Especially during rush hour, buses are so packed with people that foreigners (especially Americans) cannot escape revising their most basic assumptions about personal space and public manners.
- The dirt. Along with people comes dirt, and buses have no shortage of either. Empty seats can be wet with the sweat of the previous occupant, the air is often rife with the smell of a city hard at work, and the handrails carry the germs of 1,000 handshakes.
- The theft. While Beijing is better than many Chinese cities regarding theft on buses, being a foreigner on a packed bus always brings with it some risk of being pickpocketed. In response, I keep everything of value in my front pockets and wear my backpack on my chest.
- The mystery. Unlike in the US, where buses are usually scheduled to the minute, buses in China seem to run on their own schedule. It is not uncommon for two buses of the same number to trail each other the entire route or for 20 minutes to go by without seeing your bus. The unpredictability of the bus can make it frustrating to rely upon. Read my next entry to see why.
Nevertheless, I have enjoyed riding the bus so far. Given that I work in a school for English, the bus puts me in direct contact with “real” China for at least 45 minutes a day every weekday. It also forces me to experience how many Chinese people commute. Additionally, it is fairly inexpensive – only about 4 mao (about 6 cents) per ride, which is great for the budget.
During my time riding the bus so far, I have learned a few best practices:
- Buses do not always come to a complete stop at each bus stop, especially if there are not many people waiting. To make sure they stop for you, you need to signal them as they approach. Some effective signals I have seen are as subtle as those at a silent auction.
- On a crowded bus, you need to be strategic about your movement and placement. Start making your way to the exit a few stops before yours. Feign dismounting at the stop before yours so others yield to you and gain position at the exit door.
- As you dismount the bus, look both ways for bicycles. They show no fear along side buses, and I nearly crashed into one dismounting the bus one day.
- Yield bus seats to elderly, pregnant women, and children. I have found this etiquette to be followed by nearly everyone. For good reason too. Standing requires a lot of energy and balance, especially during rush hour.
- Make sure you enter and exit from the appropriate doors, unless there are so many people that rules just don’t apply. Anything goes then.
- Some buses require you to swipe your card twice – when you get on and get off. Don’t wait to swipe your card on the way off until your stop. Do it as you approach your stop so you can just rush off with the crowd.