Today the boys got an education. They will be starting school on Monday (more on that later), but the kind of education they received today was on appropriate conduct on the subway. Manipulating the subway as a singular person is an interesting scenario at best, but when you have children it get much more interesting. So interesting, in fact that it becomes necessary to teach them how to handle some of the chaos for themselves; a.k.a in-the-ear, step-by-step coaching. Allow me to illustrate:
Standing on the crowded loading deck for the subway, the waiting crowd hears the three-note alert that the subway is about to arrive. James stands in front holding Jude's hand and I stand in the back with Ari. I begin to edge Ari in toward James as close as possible because I can see out of the corner of my eye that a single male with a hulking backpack is trying to cut between our six-inch distance. The doors open and before I can act, Jumbo-Pack throws himself between us, giving Ari and I a mouthful of canvas. This begins the inevitable slippery slope of trying to gain back the ground we've lost. It's a losing battle. Like a hockey player, I thrust my shoulder between two people and use my elbows to make the way for Ari to push himself through, saying "Get in there Ari! Right now! Push!" (If I really were a hockey mom, I'd be saying, "Put him against the glass!!!") Ari throws himself in after me, stepping on toes, pinching fingers, slipping between legs... but eventually ending up where he should. As we come to a rest, still half a subway car away from James and Jude, I congratulate him on his quick movements and determination.
Why would we do this?
The thing is, you've got to direct your own movements, or else the crowd will do it for you, and you will almost never go the direction you want to. You will miss your connections, get separated from your group, and if you are a small kid, you will grow up with a new Chinese family and forever wonder about the mother, brother and father you lost that one day on the subway (unless you are stupid enough to think you're the one blond, blue-eyed Chinese kid). As a result, today we taught them to, how shall we say?... "assert themselves". Of course we never let go of their hands, but if you're going to hold hands on the subway, you've got to have two parties working in tandem for a common goal. One dragging the other will not work!
It isn't always about pushing and shoving, elbowing and kneeing. Sometimes it's good old fashioned muscles of steel, or making yourself about as mobile as the Great Wall. At another critical juncture today, as we crowded onto a connecting line, I felt one insistent couple trying to push me further onto the car so that they could squeeze in before the door closed. There simply was no room for them, and they were pushing me into Ari, who would have been slowly suffocated. So I planted my feet, send down my roots and mustered all my force to provide a steady but determined counter-pressure so that our human wall just had no "give" for them. I was actually quite impressed at my mother Muskox move - shielding my young and all - and at my surprising show of strength. Resisting two determined individuals is not an easy thing!
Actually, James and I have frequently pulled this Muskox move. Shielding the boys between us, we turn ourselves to the outside and make our presence known.
Now here's the real trick. Its one thing to assert yourself, but it is something else entirely to pretend that you completely unaware of what you are doing. Innocent as a kitten and twice as cute! Everyone here pretends that they have no idea they just pushed the air out of your lungs. I theorize its part of being in a culture that saves face. We've adopted these mechanisms, but we also have the added element of surprise on our side. Inevitably the person you are cutting in front of looks to see whose pushing them, and in doing so are astonished to discover a "waiguoren" (foreigner) right beside them. That provides a moment of hesitation which can be used to your own advantage.
Now before we sound like the pushiest folks around, let me reassure you that this is only necessary when things get REALLY crowded (like public transportation). I won't say that I haven't quickly angled in sharply to beat someone to the shopping line (just barely edging them out in time), but generally speaking, this is the set of rules I follow:
1) I never cut off old people, kids or the disabled (or, as a Chinglish sign once put it, "crippies");
2) If I have time to wait, I do;
3) If my children are not in harms way, I try to be polite (China polite, not Canada polite!);
4) I assume that all able bodied people are able to handle a little needling from me - after all, if I never asserted myself, I would never get anywhere or get anything done... EVER!
The good thing is that this time around, we will be riding the bus less, riding the subway infrequently, and riding with the boys even less frequently, so please don't fear for our lives! The bonus to living around crowds is that everyone assumes that everyone is doing it, so everyone expects it. Assume everyone is being a jerk, respond like a jerk, and everyone is happy! No such thing as road rage (or subway/lineup rage!), because everyone is too busy pretending they didn't do anything! Unless, of course, the misconduct was REALLY bad! For example, a fender bender would probably result in two men screaming at each other on the road (spittle flying at point-blank range), but no one is terribly concerned about it (except for the guys honking who are stuck behind). They're all in a rush to be the first one to get around the incident.
Strange as it sounds, I have a level of appreciation for this way of doing things. I'm not saying I love it, and wouldn't change anything about it. However, it really does take the powder out of your cannon and eliminate the desire to get rip-roaring angry at total strangers in the grocery store if you just assume that they will cut you off in their cart. Then, when they do, there are no feelings of being personally and morally offended. Perhaps, you might find yourself feeling a little rush of adrenaline as you prepare to do the same thing to someone else, calculating how close you can make the cut before actually making physical contact. Or, if someone oversteps the line and squishes your pelvis between your cart and theirs in the lineup (this has definitely happened to me), you might enjoy your moment of emphatically hip-checking their cart back a few inches. You'll enjoy telling the story later on, knowing that they went and told their story about you to their family (probably armed with pictures and videos of you)... and no one is grievously injured!