Sound of the Underground

The London Underground is positively archaic when compared to Shanghai’s modern metro system. However, it is notable that London’s first underground railway was opened in 1863, 130 years before Shanghai’s first line opened in 1993. Perhaps, then, it is due to its younger age that Shanghai’s metro is quite literally a breath of fresh air in comparison. Unlike the London Underground, searing, stagnant, air does not saturate the metro stations in this city. Shanghai’s stations are also distinctly cleaner – I am yet to see any scurrying rodents, an archetypal feature of the tube stations in London.

Both metro systems possess the ability to induce a serious state of panic during rush hour, but Shanghai undoubtedly wins the crown. Brits are mocked for their penchant of queuing, but I constantly yearned for some sort of order in Shanghai. In London, the rule is that people inside the tube must get off before those on the platform board. This concept does not exist in Shanghai. A tidal wave of backpacks, laptop cases and sharp elbows surge forward with monumental force and apparently this is absolutely acceptable. No muttered curses or icy stares, this is merely a cultural norm. The same rules (or lack of them), also apply to the escalators in Shanghai’s stations during rush hour. Even in the wake of a life and death situation, you will not be able to squeeze past the person standing in front of you. The escalators provide the opportunity for a rest, albeit a short-lived one. In London, the stand to the right and walk to the left system is a godsend when you’re running horribly late (a daily occurrence for me), but sprinting up the steps as though you’re competing for the Olympic gold is a sight that can only be witnessed in England’s capital.

I am a serial offender of people watching on the tube. I cannot resist the temptation of subtly averting my eyes away from the novel I feign interest in, to observe the passengers sitting opposite me. However, being a foreigner in the city of Shanghai, I have experienced being at the other end of this not-so-subtle stick. Rush hour on the underground is decidedly unpleasant – the unwanted physical contact with strangers, being so close to someone’s face that their breath has the ability to fog up your glasses. No matter how out of the ordinary you might perceive someone’s appearance or behaviour to be, a rigid rule must be adhered to on the London tubes. One must never noticeably look at or interact with another human being. Even if a highly intoxicated individual decides to take an unsolicited nap on your lap, chapter five of your novel is far too captivating for you to care or even glance at the offending body. This is not the case in Shanghai, where genuine intrigue presides over self-restraint. I experienced a full five minutes of a passenger staring directly into my eyes whilst standing about 2 millimeters away from me. After a few attempts of staring down at the floor with the hope that once I raised my head the individual would have tired of this incessant eye contact, I made the decision to embrace it. After all, the majority of us secretly relish feeling like a celebrity, even if only for a few moments on a claustrophobic subway train in Shanghai!

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