Guide to Chengdu Metro Etiquette

Rural Idaho was the perfect place to grow up. Acres of fields surrounded our house, beckoning curious, chore-avoiding children to wander through them all summer long (and get in trouble when we decided to do a little science experiment and figure out how syphon tubes worked.) Canals with rickety bridges were the perfect place to hold races of leaves and sticks, dropping them in on one side and then scurrying across to see which came out the far end first. Those same canals had banks covered in milkweed, home to monarch butterfly chrysalises, and stalk after stalk of puffy pussy willows. But, with all these grand adventures just out our backdoor, one thing my Idaho upbringing did not equip me for was public transportation. Idaho, with its population of less than two million, does not do public transportation well at all. (To be perfectly honest, it hardly does it at all.)

During college, my roommate Cori, and I got quite adept at using the public bus system to schlep our weekly groceries home from Food4Less (yes, that is really the name of the store we shopped at!) and even made one freezing cold, wet December journey into Salt Lake City to spend the day at the aviary amongst angry owls and much too raptor-like emus. But, really, until my early 30s, public transportation was not really an option for daily travel.

Then, we moved to Washington DC. Within the first day of being there, our good friends John and Erin enlightening me about subway etiquette- more precisely escalator etiquette. Walk on the left, stand on the right. Pretty simple, but coming from an escalator-free town (does Caldwell even have one escalator in it?), it never crossed my mind. I was quickly grateful for the tip, as it didn’t take long to discover that our nation’s capital takes their escalator etiquette quite serious. For a year, the DC Metro was my primary source of transportation. I took it the get to training classes, to see the sites and to visit friends. While there was a lot of grumbling by DC natives about the constant track work and line shutdowns, I loved the fairly frequent trains that were clean and while often crowded, rarely over-filled.

Skip ahead a few months to our arrival in Chengdu. When we were here with Peace Corps, there was no metro system, but when we touched down a year ago, we were happily surprised to find a single line running north/south through the city center. Four months later, the second line in the city opened, connecting our apartment complex to a larger portion of the city. But, Metro riding in Chengdu bears little resemblance to that of the DC area.

This chasm is easy illustrated by the free newspaper being handed out all along both lines on Friday of last week. Since I am nearly illiterate in Chinese, I don’t have exact translations for the various guidelines, but the drawings provide a pretty clear picture.  The paper provides ten rules for all subway passengers to follow:

1) No pooping on the train. (Thad and I both agree this would have been more appropriate as #2, but the drawing that includes a wavy stink line and a fly is a nice touch, so credit goes out to the artist for his/her detail work. I haven’t seen anyone take care of business on the subway here in Chengdu, but there were reports last winter of a child doing just that in Guangzhou, which may have been the impetus for this inclusion.)

2)No spitting on the train. (People here spit. A lot. It’s always good to prohibit spitting.)

3) Let others off the train before you get on. (This is my biggest Metro pet-peeve in Chengdu. NO ONE lets the offloading people through before rushing onto the just arrived cars. It creates a horrible traffic jam and is frustrating on a daily basis.)

4) No jumping the turnstiles. (Again, I have never seen this in Chengdu, but I suppose it is a good rule to have.)

5) No smoking or eating on the trains. (Do I see people smoking on the trains? No. Do I see people eating chicken feet out of plastic bags? Yes. But, to be fair, the DC Metro also has a rule about not eating on trains, but that didn’t stop people from snacking in their seats.)

6) No sleeping on the train. (I think this is more about hogging multiple seats by sprawling across them than it is about sleeping. I see people catching little catnaps on the train all the time, which, whatever!)

7) No panhandling. (This one confused me at first. I initially thought it was prohibiting the disabled from using the trains, but then I realized the little orange man had a money tray out. I should have instantly known the picture wasn’t showing a discrimination against the disabled, as the system itself does a pretty good job of keeping them out, since most stations are only accessible via staircase at the entrance. There is almost always an “up” escalator, but rarely a “down” or an elevator.)

8) Only use the emergency button for emergencies. (Again, good rule. Not sure that is has been an issue, yet…)

9) Let the elderly/pregnant/disabled (if they can actually make it to the train) have the seats. (This is probably my favorite of the drawings. I love the seated guy’s eyes. An old man is standing directly in front of him and he pretends to not see him. Nice!)

10) Use the escalators properly. (DC Metro would be proud of this one.)

After hundreds (thousands?) of these free newspapers were handed out last Friday, I would like to say I hold out hope that a few changes will come about on the Metro system (again, mainly #3), but I may be being a bit naïve. My thought is this: the Metro system is new to Chengdu, so new to nearly everyone who rides it. Just like I had to learn a bit about subway etiquette from the fabulous Townsends, maybe the folks here just need a bit of direction. With even more new lines set to open in the coming years, I’m choosing to look at teacup as half full and have faith that Chengdu’s public transportation will only get better with age!

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