The first year I was here I wrote an article titled Don't Stop! about primary school children who, upon dismissal, trotted their little legs on home, all by themselves. Some of those tots had a grown up escort – a parent or grandparent, but most of them made their way out of school and into traffic on the main boulevard on their own, even catching the bus by themselves. Not school buses, either: public transportation, for which they had a pre-loaded fare card just like I have, albeit at discounted rates because they are students.
I found that remarkable, especially having come from America, where drivers are mandated to slow to a crawl in school zones, where large, yellow school buses determine traffic patterns twice a day – the busiest times of day!, where only parents or a person on that student's approved pick up list could take the child away from school premises.
Seven years ago, I was astounded at the amount of independence and autonomy little scholars in China had.
I've since learned to not be on a bus during school dismissal times. Even if I board the bus at its station of origin and score a seat, students piling on at subsequent stops make the bus loud and rowdy. They are kids, after all. Once released of the tyranny of academia, they want to let loose and shout and play and eat. In the confines of rolling metal cages, being subjected to such unrestrained behavior is not a pleasant experience.
If I do happen to be out during peak school dismissal time, I will usually wait an hour or so before boarding. By then, the little bundles of energy have made it home to annoy their parents and grandparents, leaving us commuters in peace.
That's not what happened yesterday.
Yesterday was bitterly cold and rainy, at least in the morning. I figured that would be a perfect time to head to Ikea, to buy the rye crispbread that works so well with my digestive system. Because it was rainy and cold, I knew I would get a seat on all the buses I need to get there and back.
While at Ikea, on this cold and rainy day, why not enjoy lunch in the cafeteria? Thus my day was planned and I could hardly wait to get to it. I left the house before 10 AM and lingered in the climate controlled restaurant, toasty warm, until after 2 PM. And then I bought my crackers, and then I headed home.
As predicted, I had no problem finding a desirable seat on all the buses. Desirable seat: one toward the front of the bus, where the seats are not placed higher than the windows. All of the seats past the rear bus doors sit progressively higher. It makes me uncomfortable to have to slouch down to look out the window! Maybe, if I were more Chinese sized...
The bus that would take me on the final leg of my journey home was a double-decker whose top deck always offers desirable seats, but I stayed on the lower platform because I would be getting off five stops later. Still, I got a nice seat and had just enough time to savor my luck when the bus stopped. Outside the window, I saw that traffic was tied up.
Wondering: an accident? More road construction? Is it just that time of day when the road gets too crowded?
None of the above.
Zhang Jia Wan Primary School had just let out for the day. The main road was clogged with cars, double- and triple-parked, of parents (or other responsible adult) awaiting their progeny. Only one lane was available for traffic. Not even a full lane, at that.
Our waddling bus, a standard-transmission double-decker, inched it way down the open lane and then nosed toward the curb, to its assigned stop. It didn't make it to the curb or the stop: a crowd of prospective passengers mobbed the road's right lane. They had to scoot out of the way as the bus crept forward, as far as it could go. Meanwhile, passengers who meant to get off at that station stood by the back doors, ready to get off.
The driver did not immediately open the back doors. He knew better.
When he finally did, the debarking passengers had to fight their way through a surge of hopefuls seeking to board the bus illicitly. A few succeeded before the driver activated the switch that closed the doors. One girl's face got caught in the closing panels. An elderly gent, perhaps her grandfather pulled her away from the hard rubber seams before the doors could fully seal. She was left on the street, rubbing her red cheek and crying.
One girl who had rushed on got separated from her mother, who was left on the pavement. She shrieked: “Open the door! Open the door!” to no avail, other than busting everyone's eardrums. She slid open the window immediately next to the rear exit. When her mother extended her hand the girl apparently tried to pull Mom onto the bus. Or maybe Mom was trying to pull her daughter off the bus.
A woman on the bus then cradled the girl, telling her Mom will come on the next bus and in the meantime, the shrieker could go home with her and her daughter.
By this time the bus was filled to capacity; I could no longer see out the rear doors, which were right across from me, giving me a front row seat to all of the drama. Actually, I could no longer see the rear doors for all of the bodies pressed together.
One mother urged her charge to stand next to me and grab the handle on the back of my seat. “I don't want to. There is a foreigner!” the girl sobbed, and then buried her face into her mother's stomach.
Yes, I – and presumably other expats have that effect, even after all this time. In fact, throughout the day's adventures, people would only sit next to me if there were no other seat available, and then move as soon as another place to park themselves opened up. Do they not realize how hurtful and offensive that is?
Saddened, and because the bus was now so crowded I could only see a bunch of backsides if I faced right, I turned left to look out the window.
The bus was angled across all three lanes, effectively stopping what little traffic flow there already was due to all of the cars parked in front of the school. An angry cacophony of honking swelled, amplified by the flyover that shadows this road.
“Absolute madness!” I thought, and wondered what happened to the autonomy and resilience of Chinese children, qualities that were so abundantly exhibited seven years ago.
There have been attacks on school children during that time: knife-wielding madmen entering school grounds, slashing all the way. Children have been taken – not kidnapped, as there was no ransom demand, never to be seen again.
Yes, even in China, such horrors happen. No wonder caring, responsible adults want to see their charges safely home. And teachers bear their share of the burden, too: class groups are organized on the sidewalk outside of school, marked by brightly colored placards so that parents can easier find their children.
Seven years ago, kids could walk home or take the bus by themselves. And then, there were attacks. Around five years ago, concerned care givers started coming to pick the kids up and they rode the bus home together, or they rode their electric scooter – even in the rain. That made for crowded sidewalks and maybe one lane of traffic. Now that cars are the new status symbol, one must be seen driving, even if riding the bus would be more convenient and cost effective.
Of course, there are still plenty that ride the bus. It's just that buses used to have an easier time when there weren't so many cars to navigate around/through.
And, I suppose that, with all of these cars – and drivers whose primary goal is to be first (in a lane, at the light, etc), it is no longer safe for little ones to walk unaccompanied at all. Especially with the example their elders are setting: it wasn't just rowdy kids boarding the bus incorrectly (and without paying). Their grandmothers were particularly gleeful to have beat the crowd at the front door. And they have no problem urging their little darlings to jaywalk across the street, either.
After 7 years here, I shake my head and wonder: how can Chinese civilization progress if this is how the children are still being taught???