I’ve touched before on the fact that Beijing is chock full of people. Teeming with people, people everywhere, pretty much a nightmare for anyone with an acute fear of a zombie epidemic. Even though I’ve now lived in Beijing a combined 4.5 years (in two different stretches), because this is so different from how I grew up I am always aware of the sheer volume of people around me.
I’ve noticed recently that Beijingers seem entirely oblivious to the fact that there are people in their vicinity, to the point where my “otherness” doesn’t even make me stand out enough anymore for people to avoid jostling me. Waiting in line to buy coffee today a woman breezed in front of me, stepping on both of my feet, before she suddenly noticed me and (it seemed genuinely) apologized. Later, walking in a stream of people down the side of an escalator, a man reached into his bag at the exact moment I passed by him and elbowed me in the ribs. He was not apologetic at all.
The worst assault of the day came from another passenger on my mildly crowded bus. I say mildly crowded because there was still enough room for everyone to hold onto the hand rails, but there was not really enough room to get down the aisle without carefully inching along sideways. In his hurry to get off the bus (even though he was standing right next to the door), a man near me simultaneously let go of the hand rail and violently brought his arm down, essentially inflicting “The People’s Elbow” on my collarbone. His apology consisted of shouting the Chinese equivalent of “whoops!” as he bounded out the door.
The reason I bring up all of these instances is not because they were in any way exceptional. Things like this pretty much happen on a daily basis, and I’ve always chalked it up to locals either being so used to other people they didn’t see them or maybe tuning them out as a coping mechanism for the stress of crowds. But I had another interaction today that really gave me pause to think; an interaction that was very exceptional.
Walking into a mall restroom amid a crowd of other ladies, I could see that there was a woman mopping the floor. As people walked in, she made sure to warn each one of them to tread carefully because the floor was wet. As I walked past she asked if I was finished with the coffee cup in my hand and offered to throw it out for me. I could hear her do the same for another woman as I waited in line. After washing my hands, she saw me look at the empty paper towel dispenser and then move to the mechanized dryer. She immediately went to the storage cabinet, took out a stack of paper towels, and carefully peeled off two for me.
She was not just being nice to me because I was a foreigner. She was being nice to everyone, smiling as she cleaned. It really struck me that this woman, who could so easily keep her head down and ignore, was going out of her way to not only notice the people around her but also to notice what they needed. And it occurred to me that maybe this habit of ignoring other people, while it could still be a coping mechanism, is partially an attitude of privilege.