The mission was for me to simply ride a bus through Nanjing. That’s all. I’d get on at one end of the route and ride it until I felt like coming back, taking notes of what a person thinks of while on the bus. I think Tom and I were both a surprised at how much can be seen on even a short journey of an hour through a city.
I got on at the 2nd stop of the line. The bus was already mostly filled. Barely found a seat and the rest of the seats were filled at the next stop. Seats toward the aisle were filled before those uncomfortable ones over the wheel wells, and to make it the most difficult task to fill all seats. Occasionally, one can barely board or get through the center aisle only to find that the rear of the bus has no one and there are open seats in the back. Most of the time, the aisle is filled simply because the riders had no wish to sit with their knees uncomfortably high, but there are those who seem to begrudge you if you would try to slide by them to fill the undesirable seat.
I notice Coca-Cola ads with a crooked-toothed spokesman on the back of every seat and the two TVs at the middle and front of the bus running more ads for dumplings, which will somehow make you thinner; for coffee, which also makes you thinner; and Coca-Cola, which makes you cool. There are three cameras on the ceiling, peering at every passenger through their unreadable, black snow-globe. The TVs move from ads to clips of American basketball games.
We pass a university and some boys in their early 20s board. They filter through the crowd to the absolute most congested section of the bus by the exit door. The cold breeze from the front follows them. They quickly affect the cool, bored, half-starved look of young male pack mates after a harsh winter. They look like wolves in winter as they joke and jostle each other. A tall one stares, bored, out of the window, as the bus heater blows hard and the passengers crowd in.
If this were a different line, there’d be a much different population group; they carry the workers on their work-a-day lives. But I ended up on this line, which travels by five or six universities and institutes, through the expat area of town, and through the swanky downtown. It is by and large filled with the young and the hip, heading for shopping or possibly work in the mid-afternoon. There is an air on the bus of cool youth clad, in the Chinese sense of fashion, to impress. Newspapers rustle in girls’ laps and boys thoughtlessly thumb chic smart phones in theirs.
The bus turns on to another road, foreigner central, into the tall, slick buildings of the downtown. As told in legend, money lies in the foreigners’ pockets, but that possible tall tale is taken by Chinese mouths and screamed on every corner and block here. It is evident on fancy bakeries, coffee shops, fifty-plus-story office buildings with strange tops. One reminds me of the US capitol building here, a forty foot gigantic red doorway that leads to a hundred foot drop there, another capped with Grecian plinths that would have looked in place two thousand years ago. The bus clears out a little and I try to move seats for one not over an uncomfortable wheel well but to no avail. The younger crowd files off as we hit the city center – in the sense of fashion, wealth, power, and geography – to be replaced by slightly older businessmen finishing business or whatever they happen to do in the early afternoon.
The bus’s horn blows bikes out of the way like a physical force when it moves into their lane. Businessmen become scarce as elderly folk replace. We begin moving more out of the city rather than through it. An elderly man who had been casually leaning on a support pole sensed I wanted something, evaluated what it was, and with speed I didn’t think was possible for a man that age, slid into the seat that had just opened. This occurs twice more, once to an elderly woman, once to a 20-something woman.
We’re now in the next neighborhood. The ritzy, even more chic and expensive neighborhood of the true spenders. It is named 1912. The trendiest, sexiest people come here for Starbucks in the day, expensive Japanese restaurants in the evening, and the sweatiest, drunkest clubs blaring dance music and strobes in the full night. If I were closer, I would smell booze, cigarettes, money, and bad decisions. The last of the urban kids get off here – everyone else left on the bus is headed home to the suburbs.
I make room for a woman and she slams her bag into my face. She does not apologize, but I’m too used to China to expect that now. She is old and like most old people in China, her hair is dyed midnight black. It looks decidedly unnatural as it thins, the pale olive of her scalp visible underneath. There must be literal rivers of the shampoos that “increase black” and the dyes that must run down the drain each day here for people to fight nature. She unabashedly reads these lines over my shoulder. And this one. And this. She is unable to tell they are about her. Some ashamed part of me eventually moves a hand to cover them but she does not understand anyway and grows weary of being so nosy. She falls into one of those impossible bus riders’ naps against the window, some superhuman part of her brain will assuredly wake her up just before her stop, like sensing the sun behind closed eyes or a migrating bird finding the same tree each year.
Hardly anyone on the bus will leave knowing anything more about their fellow riders. This is nothing new nor is this something I would only expect from China, of course, but even as people sit next to each other, no words are exchanged. The bus is silent but for the two young people in the back – possibly a future couple – who met only a moment ago.
The skyscrapers begin to submerge again – tall buildings begin to sink into the ground. An ambulance with lights and sirens going and with people being rescued visible through the windows in the back races side by side until it gets stuck behind traffic and we lose it to its emergency. No cars moved out of the way and its siren was just as audible as any car horn blaring outside – and is just as heeded or ignored. The heater is cranked and windows have been opened by passengers to the chilly air of early March.
I realize I have gotten further than I’ve ever been and become suddenly anxious with those worries that come over a person who’s no stranger to getting lost. I exit the bus, sheepish that the suburbanites show no fear where I have only a lifetime of poor sense of direction. I cross the street quietly and wait in the light rain that has just begun.
The next bus finally comes, like most of the time when it begins raining, the bus comes late and extremely crowded. I gently yet firmly withstand the shoving crowd to resume the next chapter. Of course, the chapter begins with me standing shoulder to shoulder, or, since I’m a little taller than most people here at 5 foot 10 inches, shoulder to head.
Standing room only leads me to a bit of providence. A seat opens next to me and the man on the window over the wheel well slides out instantly to the aisle. I ask him if I can sit and he gives me a bit of guff as if I asked him for money. I don’t know if it’s been the time standing in the rain or that it’s been all of an hour that I’ve been riding around on a crowded bus, but I wish I had a way to tell him that we all pay the same price, except the old people and the half-price students. I become irritable after being in public and alone, feeling exposed. Everyone seems ruder, less communistic, selfish, where the children scream a few decibels louder, the pretty girls look a few more degrees down their nose, the horn blasts twice as often, and the bus swerves or stops sharply every block rather than every two.
But the old folks stare stoically out of the window at the rain falling. They’ve seen worse.
The man sitting next to me has a large down coat — as friends call it, a “subway sleeping bag.” His arms and legs are positioned so as to press me completely against the window, though unlike the child in the seat in front of me, I do not wish to push my nose and lips against the window.
Like the woman almost an hour before, he begins reading these words. It’s unclear whether he can read English or just likes to watch the letters being written and the bumps of the street moving the pen chaotically. I realize as I begin to position my hand over these words that it doesn’t matter. This is simply the truth as I see it. It isn’t as if I am drawing dirty pictures or writing dirty secrets. These are simply the dirty truths. I realize then, as I reread, that these aren’t even dirty truths. Merely truths touched by an annoyed mind. Like many things in life, merely acknowledging the problem can cause it to disappear. I move my hand from covering them and begin to cross a few words off the page. I pause as I do so, deciding then to leave them in. This was the truth as I saw it, so I merely move my hand away.
The bus stops a few seconds later to let a young woman who has been running frantically catch up. I refuse to think that I’ve seen drivers close the doors on people as they were boarding and refuse to open the door at a red light. The rest of the ride home, the young people give their seats to the elderly, people stop yelling, and I’m finally able to move off the wheel well. As we careen down the street to my apartment, the people actually move out of the way to let me off the bus.
I leave the metal walls, the fourth ceiling-mounted camera I’ve finally noticed, and the mass of people I realize who aren’t evil, rude, or all that selfish – they’re just living their lives.
I take the long stride to the curb from the back door, sure to check for silent electric scooters from both directions (even getting to the sidewalk can be dangerous). With that first step, I feel freer. Freed from the cramped quarters of cheap travel (priced around a $.25), I breathe deeply the cold air, which brings with it freshness mixed with heavy bus exhaust.
I’m across the street from the bus stop I first boarded. Based on my destination, I haven’t physically gone anywhere. I’ve ridden the line for a mere hour and a half, but despite that, my perception of this city has changed. Some of the scenery has not changed– the things I fear are still living here – but there is the other side of the balance, the part that allows the city to taste redemption through minute acts.
We are planning on sending Casey on future assignments around the city to serve as your personal guide of modern China. If you have a place you’d like him to explore please tell us in the comment section below.