OUR OWN LITTLE WORLDS: Passengers ride on a Beijing subway line in January (LI WEN)
Miles (or kilometers) away from home, I find that it's the similarities and not the differences between Beijing and my home country that strike me.
Picture this. The wind from an incoming subway train ruffles your hair as you stand in line. As the doors open, your heart flutters—the subway is nearly empty! Eagerly, you take—no, you claim—your seat triumphantly and settle in for a leisurely trip. As you sit, you happily follow all the other passengers' example and browse the Internet on your phone. All is well until you feel a large shadow settle over you. You look up and find that a man has decided to grab the bar right above your head and lean directly over you despite the fact that there are several free seats around you (as well as pretty much the entire train for standing space). You can feel his breath on the top of your head.
It's unpleasant, but you figure no harm done. It's not like he's touching you. He's just being difficult. You go back to your phone—now a tool you can use to keep yourself from acknowledging his presence—and hope he gets off the subway soon.
That situation's a little unusual, though, so let's try a more common one.
It's 8:00 a.m. on a Monday. The subway is positively packed in a way that would make sardines feel cramped. You somehow push your way back from the door into a corner that magically has enough space for you if you lean against the wall and hold your arms close to your chest.
It's not a lot, but it's better than being squeezed somewhere in the middle of the car, completely at the mercy of gravity, the motion of the car and whether or not someone around you decides to sneeze.
As you settle into your corner, the guy next to you, also leaning on the wall of the car, reaches up to grab the railing above your head, pushing your head aside in the process.
Variations of the above scenarios have happened to me and my friends frequently on the subway here in Beijing, and, to a certain extent, I get it. When it's crowded, it's every person for themselves. No one said public transportation was pretty, and I did not expect it to be that way. However, I find that some people are more comfortable pushing into others' personal space than others.
It's not just a problem here. In a worldwide phenomenon that has been talked about on North American news platforms ranging from The New York Times to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and CBC News, men are more likely to spread out and take up more space on public transportation than women, in a move called "manspreading."
Initially a reference to men's tendency to sit down and spread their legs while sitting on public transportation, causing the passengers next to them to scoot over or even abandon their seats in favor of, well, more space, manspreading has led to a cross-country discussion on gender and personal space.
In June 2014, the cosmetics company Pantene released a commercial called Not Sorry, which portrays everyday situations (a meeting, sitting in a waiting room, etc.) where women apologize or excuse themselves for asking questions or, in one case, for simply sitting where she is when a man sits down next to her.
Do I think that Beijing has a manspreading problem? I don't think it's as big a problem as it is in other places, but I do think that there are some things that cross cultures, and it does appear (to me, at least) that men are more comfortable taking up space here, as they are in many countries.
That said, when that guy puts his arm up against my head to grab the bar, I'm not going to move my head. I think I'm entitled to what little personal space I can manage on the subway, which is really not that much. I'm just asking that I be able to stand in the corner without having to tilt my head backward at a 60-degree angle just so that you can reach for something to hold onto behind me, especially when there's a bar right above your head. If that involves head-butting a stranger's arm in a small personal battle, I'm willing to do that.
Copyedited by Eric Daly
The author is an American living in China