A Metro Commuter

Shanghai has one of the world’s most comprehensive Metro and light rail systems, which is still under rapid expansion as the city undergoes unprecedented transition. Now, I take part in this like many other people who happen to live in this mega city.

A map of Shanghai Metro

I recently moved from my old apartment at the city center near Xujiahui to a new one in the southwest suburb (the University Town in Songjiang district), a rural area only a few years ago. It means that I officially started my life as one of the millions of Shanghai commuters who move by the Metro system on a daily basis from home to work, and back. My routine commute is Line 9, a route connecting Songjiang District to Pudong District, straight from the station near my apartment to the one close to my office. The entire ride takes 13 stops and about 45 minutes. Factor in the walking time that takes me travel between stations and home or work, everyday I spend two hours for a round trip commute.

My new apartment costs one third less in rent but is almost twice as big as my last one in downtown. For this exchange, I pay extra cost of subway fair (12RMB round trip) and spend extra time in transit. I can have regular readings or listennings to podcasts during my commute. I am now reading Peter Hessler’s books about his personal experience in china. I’ve finished his first book, River Town, a book about his teaching and life in Fuling, and now I moved on to his second book, Oracle Bones. I look forward to read his third book “country driving” after I finish this one (Update: I am in fact reading the third one now. I just learned that Ho Wei, Hessler in his Chinese name, was awarded the MacArthur fellowship, a prestigious prize that present to a person who has a marked capacity of self-direction. Congratulations! Ho Wei).

The greatest annoyance to me in the subway is that many morning commuters eat their take-out breakfasts during the ride or do some other trivia that might be more appropriate at a private setting. I can smell their food and hear their chewing sound. One time, I saw this tall and pretty girl who held and watched her cell phone in one hand and in the meantime ate her food held by the other. She was eating so loud that I could hear the clamping noise of her mouth from about 15 meters away in a crowded car. For herself, the whole act was under complete isolation and she was so relaxed as if the Metro is an extension to her living room. Today, I saw a man at his thirties loudly clipping his finger nails and let the clip-offs fall all over the floor in front of other commuters.

Every entrance of a metro station has a security check point, where you need to put your bag through a X-ray scanner for screening. I have a mixed feeling for such “heightened security measure”. I still consider China is an internally peaceful country with little terrorist threat, at least in the east coast region. It looks paranoid to have such equipments installed everywhere (I even saw metal detectors installed for bar entrances in Songjiang).

But given the importance and vulnerability of the Metro system, a concern of public safety seems in the meantime well justified, even though Shanghai Metro system has never been attacked ever since the transit system started its operation in 1995. All previous incidents were due to either technical fault or mismanagement. However, like many Chinese systems, there is no clear rule regulating what type of bags must be subject to the X-ray. Even if there exist such rules, they are not enforced systematically. One time I put my messenger bag onto the belt of a X-ray machine and the screener personnel just stared at me without even looking at the screen. “You don’t even look at what is in my bag.” I complained. He grinned and then looked embarrassed but still didn’t want to go back to his actual work and check what might be inside in my bag. Sometimes, in Songjiang University Town Station of Line 9 one guy instructs people to put their bags through the scanner and another guy who supposedly should inspect the screen could not care less or was just doing other things.

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