Life in Beijing is like a race utilizing several modes of transportation: Flagging down the unperturbed taxi driver "going on break" or heading home the other way. Looking at the plethora of bus numbers playing bumper games so close to one another that you fail to see their number before it is too late to jump on. You must stand for the 45 minutes that would normally last 15 minutes during non-rush hours. But where have all these people suddenly emerged from, and what's to worry about not having enough leg or elbow room to scratch that irritating itch?
You are not in Japan, even though bodies on this bus press together here just as tightly on subways. Perhaps you are misplaced, since the language tones around could have you believing that you have mistaken this city for being a "foreign" culture—after all, wasn't that music you heard in all the department stores behind you English pop, or Western rock 'n roll? And isn't that small digital screen on the bus flashing NBA game clips and superstars from the World Cup soccer competitions? Ahhh, but today one person standing near your seat has a clear plastic bag of hot stuffed baozi that are all coming dangerously close to satisfying the cravings brought on by your missed breakfast.
First, be grateful that you do have a seat; and second, that people are not depositing recently cleaned corn cobs indiscriminately between the bus seats, floor, or into the outside traffic. Also, although protrusions like backpacks, and badminton racquet cases may provide an occasional nudge or two, no one is carrying a large dead fish with vacant eyes, casually wrapped in a newspaper; upside down chickens with their feet tethered as their frightened eyes roll frantically behind flickering lid slits. To be sure, in Beijing no one will be struggling to board their much valued goat to be inserted alongside passengers standing in the aisles. This is not a "chicken bus" ala India or Central America. Even the avid fishing or kite-flying buff will avoid accosting packed buses with their bulky equipment. But hark! You will find entertainment on these buses among color-coded face masked passengers, who will normally respect your personal space, unlike being on crowded Japanese subway trains.
A few months ago I became fascinated when I noticed a senior Chinese man holding an unusual walking stick carved with ornate figures, and embossed with colorful stones. He seemed proudly amused that this artifact attracted comments and admiration. I will admit that in all of my travels, forays into woodcraft stores and antique venues, I had never seen such a creatively crafted totem. On other bus riding occasions my attention has been torn away from the variety of enthusiastic sweat suits worn by middle school students, distinguishing them from other learning centers, when a group of colorful middle-aged women with sun hats, flags, and brass cymbals, exuberantly seated themselves prior to reaching the destination for the day's scheduled performance. Seated directly across from our bus driver was a soft-speaking woman repeatedly thrusting religious propaganda pamphlets with a bright red symbolic cross at the elderly gentleman seated across from her. Removing his young grandson who had been lovingly balanced on his knee, he accepted the paper, thanking the lady as she continued her long discourse gesturing toward the sky, and alternately placing her hand upon her heart. That was yesterday.
Is this unique? Well, perhaps not as common as hearing the crackling, grating sounds of someone rubbing two small balls in one hand in an absentminded fashion. Today, many eyes were pulled away from mobile phone screens to watch an elderly gentleman who did not have the typical cluster of two or four brass bird cages in his grasp. Instead, this man had a medium-sized colorful bird niftily perched upon his walking stick, with a short, thin cord tied to one straw-thin leg. The bird hopped to and fro upon the short walking stick handle, perched itself upon his handler's finger from time to time, fluttered its wings but stayed contently close to the wooden perch. I could not restrain myself from leaving my seat and boldly asked permission to capture the scene with my camera. "What is your nationality?" the old man asked in Chinese. "I am American," I replied. Pointing to the bird I say, "This is very beautiful!" The old man looked around at the other passengers and then said while looking at his bird, "He is American too!" At this we all laughed. I returned to my seat, which strangely had not been taken.
So, this was today. Tomorrow, who knows what will happen on the city bus. One thing is certain, there will not be any live chickens squawking around during bus rides in this metropolis, as this is Beijing—the civilized capital of friendly adventures. Who knows, someone may even offer you a seat when the bus is crowded!
Ha! Yeah, right!
The author is an American living in Beijing