‘I’ll never get off’, I thought to myself. The Beijing metro carriage was impossibly crammed with bodies. Faces were squashed awkwardly against the windows; doors bulged from the pressure; few held the overhead bars for stability since one could not move anyway. My stop was seconds away. Having given away any thought of being able to get off, I studied the metro map to find out how far this train would go – the theory being that the end of the line would see fewer people and a chance to disembark.
Anxiously I nudged my shoulder and shifted one leg a centimetre or so. Miraculously a ‘path’ began to open up. Or rather, the smallest of space appeared between the two people before me. I shuffled into the opening and yet another opened up. As I did so, other people were also moving to the doors, and a subtle shifting of bodies began. I was at the door not a moment too soon. How did that happen? I wondered. Somehow in a completely jammed carriage, space appeared all over the place. Not vast swathes, but just enough between bodies – if one does not mind full body contact in the process.
‘I’ll never get a ticket’, I thought to myself. I was in what may euphemistically be called a ‘queue’ in some other places. Forget a carefully guarded line, in which every one gives room to the person who has arrived earlier and is before you. Instead, the queue in question was really a scrum at the ticket window. A man wedged his shoulder between those in front, held out a wad of cash, and yelled at the ticket seller. Would she tell him, calmly and firmly, to get to the back of line and stay in his place? Not at all. She quietly responded to his call, took his cash and handed over a ticket. A woman pushed in from the side, wedging her way through and asked loudly about a train. Again, the ticket seller answered her as though it was the most normal thing in the world. So it went on, one after another person walked around me, in front of me, and even through me (or so it felt). The ever-changing crowd at the window simply shouldered, reached or sidled within vocal range and managed to get their tickets.
What was I to do? Wait patiently until they were all gone? I decided to try my luck. A closed the space in front of me and became somewhat intimate with the woman in front. A man worked his way out of the crowd, ticket in hand, and I immediately filled the space he had briefly carved through the crowd. As another tied to sidle around me, I blocked his way with my back and legs. And I used my height advantage to reach over the heads of those before me to thrust my cash in the face of the ticket seller. ‘Nanjing’, I called out, ‘T23’. I called again, and as she finished with the previous customer, she took my cash, processed the ticket and handed it to me.
I was keen to try out my new skill: at shops, vegetable markets, metros, food stalls. Sometimes it was easy enough, at others a thrilling challenge. To order dumplings and soup at a milling food stall on a holiday is a feat for a foreigner, but I have emerged from such encounters in triumph. How so? The other side of people willingly making room for you when trying to leave a crammed metro carriage is that they also instinctually fill whatever small space opens up. A gap here, an opening there, it must be filled. After all, the space is there for you to fill.
‘I’ll never get on’, I thought to myself. The bus had pulled up among half a dozen others, out on the roadway itself. A stream of people – all black haired with a few grey ones amongst them – rushed out to the bus door. Already the bus was to my eyes overfull, but one by one the new passengers found a way in. By the time I came to board, I had all but abandoned the idea of ever joining them. Thus far, I was immensely proud of myself, for I had negotiated the matter of bus stops, routes and the destinations – all in Chinese characters. No language I knew was used alongside such characters, not even pinyin. After all, foreigners take taxis, don’t they? But now my pride slid as I contemplated the bus door.
In a last-ditch effort of wishful thinking, I grabbed the handrail and lifted a foot. The continual shuffling of people on the bus – undertaken subconsciously and without yells from the driver – left me a ledge at the door. Further shuffling and I had space for my chest and head; a little more and my bum and shoulders were on board as well. When the driver was satisfied I was actually on the bus, he shut the door and hit the accelerator. We were on our way. How did this happen? Were people being nice to a bewildered foreigner? Did I appear stern, threatening perhaps, so that people involuntarily moved out of my way? No, in a country such as this no-one claims space as a private fiefdom – or as they say euphemistically in some other places, no-one has a large ‘personal space’. Instead, there is always room for one more.
Making space, filling space, always room for another – by this time it was becoming clearer that space is produced hereabouts in different ways. Space is to be shared, not hoarded. For a foreigner, this reality can be thrilling and daunting: thrilling if you are seeking to get on a bus, metro or train, or indeed to get off; daunting if you need to engage in filling space in order to achieve anything at all – eating, travelling, finding a seat, walking, even sleeping. Actually, space is not merely shared, but it is also flexible.
On a long-distance train in the sleeper carriages, the corridors are often full of people, passing by with luggage, or for a smoke at the end of the carriage or perhaps for the toilet. At my first encounter with a fellow corridor walker, I slipped into the nearest cabin to let him pass. He did so with a slightly bemused look on his face. Puzzled, I walked on, only to encounter another. Before I could re-enact my evasive action, she simply shifted her shoulder slightly and swivelled her hips. She suddenly made the narrow corridor seem as open as the plains outside the window, passing by with the least trouble.
In the corridors of such trains, there are fold-out seats just large enough for smallish bum-cheeks. Should the sleeping compartment become too confined, you can always take a seat outside the door, in the corridor. The first time I did so, I stretched my legs and calmly looked out the window. In a matter of seconds one of the attendants came striding along. I duly stood up to let her pass, but she motioned for me to sit down again and simply slipped by me. I felt not even a brush of her clothing. So I settled down again to resume my peaceful gaze. Before long, the loud call of the man wheeling the food trolley arrived in our carriage. Surely he could not get past without me standing. Yet once again, he did so deftly, the trolley designed to deal with such situations as a matter of course. People continued to pass to and fro, gliding past me without even noticing my presence. Flexible space indeed, but in the midst of it I felt as though I had all the room in the world. At last I could relax.