Stories from the bus 1

I ride the bus in China for a number of reasons: it’s safer than biking or e-biking, I already hate driving, and taxis are expensive. The bus is incredibly inexpensive. At ¥1-2 ($0.14-30) per ride, to go anywhere I want to go, it’s unbeatable value.

I have experience with public transportation in my home country–I tried Pittsburgh’s anemic transit system when I worked in the Southside and lived in Murrysville (yikes), I’ve taken the train from Hartford, CT to NYC and back various times, and I got pretty good at figuring out the metro in NYC, DC, and the buses in San Francisco when I’ve visited for business or pleasure as well as the various train and bus option in both Beijing and throughout Japan after tutorials from friends. But living in a place and taking public transit every day is different than taking it when you’re visiting.

Rituals are important when it comes to my experience on the bus and since every last bus ride is unpredictable, I think rituals help me to preserve my sanity. My rituals include wearing my lanyard with my Suzhou Citizen Card/bus pass around my neck, stepping from curb to street to bus in order to board, and, once I’m seated, checking somewhat compulsively that I’m going in the correct direction (again). For work days, I like to have a podcast or some calm music playing when I’m boarding so I can keep my mood level even if the bus is a hot mess.

And oh what a mess it can be.

Today I tutored, as I usually do on Saturdays. I had to run to catch the bus, and when I reached it, I found it completely packed. Wall to wall. Sardines. The driver wasn’t admitting anyone at the front of the bus because his area was already too crowded, so I boarded using the exit door.

I learned that this is acceptable a few months ago when, as one of the people crammed into the front of the bus, I watched people hop on at the backdoor. I didn’t know what was culturally acceptable, from this standpoint, so I paid close attention. Shortly after the people boarded in the back, a stack of bus passes was handed to me. I was expected to scan these and return them, I surmised. I dutifully scanned each card and handed them back to the person who had handed them to me. The crowd subsequently reached and passed and returned the cards to the owners.

So today, I did likewise. I took my bus pass out of the card holder on my lanyard and tapped a nearby fellow passenger. I handed him my card and motioned to the front of the bus. He got the message. He passed my card along. A few seconds later, I heard the distinctive “beep” of the scanner. A minute after that, the guy returned my card to me. The price of replacing my school ID/Suzhou Citizen Card/bus pass as well as the amount of money I have charged on the card crossed my mind, but I’m in China so I fully expected to get my card back. And I did.

Yesterday on my way home from work, I sat at the front of the bus. It’s a delightful place to sit–a forward-facing, single seat, right by the door. I enjoy the cool air that blows in when the door opens and closes as well as the chance to watch traffic unfold in front of me. Sometimes this also means being subjected to the bus’s loud (LOUD) horn, but I endure because it’s so uncommon for me to get this seat.

The bus I was riding followed one ahead of it closely. The flat fronts of the rectangles with wheels allow the drivers to pull up quite close to each other at stops (which is always a little unnerving). I noticed a child sitting in the back seat of the bus we were following. He was facing backwards, toward me, and we eventually made eye contact.

I decided to wave at him. Clearly we were sharing a moment that no one else was part of. Me and this little boy, perfect strangers, waving at each other from the front and back of our buses, respectively.

At every stop, as my bus approached his, he purposefully turned to face me. As soon as I saw him, I began to wave. He would bob up and down, waving with one hand, then both hands as his bus pulled away from the stop.

At one stop, I didn’t see him. I needed to get off anyway because it was my stop. I was eager to go home and rest after a long first week of teaching. I crossed the street and then I saw him, walking hand in hand with who I can only guess is his yeye (grandfather 爷爷). I walked behind them from a distance. Then the boy ran off towards the patch of grass next to the kindergarten and squatted down. His yeye quickened his pace, stood next to him, then knelt down. I had no idea why until I looked at the grass and noticed it was speckled with tiny blue flowers. Weeds, probably, but flowers nonetheless.

The boy touched the flowers as his yeye explained something I couldn’t understand and I walked past. They were behind me now, and we were no one to each other, but once I turned the corner I knelt down to take a photo of the flowers. Without the boy’s attention drawing my own, I might have missed this sorely needed sign of spring.

As I ride the bus every day, I guarantee I’ll have more stories (good and bad). 🙂

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