Dreamboat: No Umbrellas Underground

Ms. Wang is a five-foot-two Beijing Public Transportation Servant and she’s about to shove me and three-dozen other commuters onto a packed subway car during the morning rush hour. She, like all the other Public Transportation Servants on the platform, wears a long sleeve fleece yellow polo which has to be hot as hell because the back of my shirt is already clinging to me with sweat from the collective body heat in here. Over the polo she wears a red sash with gold lettering written in a fancy calligraphy that says in formal Chinese I am at your service, which will feel less true when she, like someone desperately trying to at over-pack a suitcase, will turn her back to everyone standing near the door in the subway car, brace herself against a wall, and push her body weight against us to get us through the doors to spite the car’s maximum occupancy. 

When the train doors open she and the other Public Transportation Servants (PTS) will shout into microphone headsets  “WAIT FOR THEM TO GET OFF THE TRAIN. NOW EVERYONE GET ON THE TRAIN, HURRY UP, HURRY UP,” to move things along, not giving nearly enough time for passengers to detrain so for a second we’re all linebackers. 

Station security, teenage looking guys wearing blue button downs with, considering the heat, wisely rolled up sleeves, watch from the sidelines. Their shirts have shoulder epaulettes and they wear communist red armbands that were made popular by the Red Guards in the 60s—gangs of young guys who went around proselytizing for Mao from the Chairman’s book of quotes The Little Red Book. You can buy it at most tourist traps for fifty cents American. 

There’s a narcoleptic-looking security guard on the platform, eyelids drooping, leaning back and pressing his palms flat against the pillar behind him for support. It might be just how mind-shatteringly boring his job must be.  Every morning he repeats walk forward… walk forward…. walk forward over and over at a spot where breaking from the crowd and choosing to not walk forward would be like choosing to wade up white water rapids. 

There’s a security guard wearing full uniform. His shoulders swim in a navy blue blazer with gold embroidering on the cuffs. He’s wearing a giant navy blue service cap that makes his heads look positively tiny. He’s standing closer to the platform edge, looking lost and out of place. 

The Dream Subway

This is the Dongzhimen subway station. It’s one of the biggest stations in the most trafficked subway system in the world.  Lines for the bus terminal end right about where lines for where the trains start. It’s named after one of the old city’s fortifications, the ‘East Straight Gate,’ that was torn down in the 60s with these trains in mind. 

Since then, China has built the longest railway on Earth. China boasts four of the  busiest metro systems in the world and no other country has as large a high-speed rail network. 

On the wall opposite the platform there’s a poster that shows a train leaving a subway station. The whole image is tinted red except for a splotchy gold sun rising over the train with wispy gold Chinese characters and English words all over the place that read The Chinese Dream, Rapid Development, The Dream Subway over and over. 

General Secretary Xi Jinping began promoting the phrase “The Chinese Dream” in 2013, vowing to set the country on course to realize the dreams of millions of Chinese to grasp or stabilize a position in the country’s growing middle class and strengthen the country’s claim to global influence. It’s unclear where the dream subway is, but it’s clearly not underground.  

But more importantly, “The Chinese Dream” is a vocalization of the tacit agreement that exists between the Chinese people and their government. It’s a simple trade of sustained economic growth for political sovereignty: Play by our rules and we’ll get you rich[er than before*], making GDP growth a constant, existentially important balancing act for the government. It’s why 2008 saw a stimulus package an order of magnitude bigger than the one US’s and why priorities like environmental protection and corruption reform fall by the wayside while median income increases, among other things.

Variations on a joke

I stare at people a lot more on the subway in Beijing than I do at home, mostly because there’s nowhere else to look. Once you’re in the car, moving in between stops means necessarily pushing everyone else in a deeply embarrassing domino effect that turns a lot of heads. 

Most Beijing commuters transport themselves out of the entire situation by holding iPhones and iPads two or three inches away from their faces. A lot of people do this even when they walk. 

It explains how a lot of these commuters pull off watching hour-long TV shows, since virtually every minute of their time underground is spent totally immersed in their HD screens. 

There’s several variations of a joke in China that a lot of Chinese like to tell to foreigners.The gist of the joke is that Chinese workers in Shenzhen get paid pennies on the dollar to make Apple products in factories like Foxconn, a factory that needs nets to keep workers from leaping from the roof, and then the Chinese will have buy the phone back at retail prices that soar above those in Western countries. Even when the delivery is on, it’s usually hard to ignore its underlying bitterness. It’s impossible to ignore it when they include the part about Foxconn. 

Still, Apple products in particular, and smart phones in general, have become hugely popular in China. Last summer on the streets around the Beijing Normal University campus, we could count on two hands how many times a week Chinese men with patchy facial hair and cargo shorts would approach us with hands in pockets, speeding up to close the distance before whipping out an iPhone and saying only, “iPhone,” in a speaking voice that sounded at once willfully deeper and totally out of place. 

Chinese speakers habitually tack on syllables to words and phrases. It may be the overwhelming exposure to the linguistic habit, but it a lot of these small changes make language sound better: hao (pronounced how), meaning good, changes to hao a (pronounced howwahh [isn’t that at least more fun to say?]) so your ears prick up when you hear a word so distinctively non-Chinese, a clunky marriage of a letter and a word with a hard ne ending.  And in China you hear the word ‘iPhone’ a lot. 

Apple controls 80% of the premium phone market share, a massive and near-hallucinatory amount, and that’s only counting the Apple products that are actually the real thing. There are dozens of fake Apple stores across China filled with baby-faced staff wearing blue t-shirts with items on display on wooden tables and Chinese translations of the Steve Jobs biography. And then there are the guys in the cargo shorts. 

The cover of Chinese Vogue in November will feature the new Apple watch. An iPhone may cost a month’s salary at a decent job, but its symbolism weighs heavy on the Chinese imagination. For a growing number of Chinese, a smartphone means you’ve arrived. 

October 1st

Starting October 1st of each year, China marks the 1949 Communist victory with a seven-day national holiday. Though the capital is swarmed with Chinese tourists from outside Beijing, few take the subway. Most of the daily commuters visit hometowns or go abroad. 

Those mornings fewer (PTS) and security offers are around. The few Servants that are here have little nylon Chinese flags on plastic sticks, which they hold limply by their sides. The flags tremble more and more furiously as the trains pulled away before coming to rest again. The Servants don’t bother to shout when the doors open, just a tentative “CAREFUL” when the train gets closer. 

On the car there’s more than enough space to move around. It’s always quiet on the Beijing subway. No one ever really speaks. The newfound freedom of motion in my limbs might be going to my head but it actually feels pleasant in the car. Peaceful. 

The subway TV is playing footage of Party members sitting behind a rectangular table against the backdrop of a very big stage with massive red drapes. They’re not mentioning it, but twelve hundred miles away in Hong Kong tens of thousands are protesting their government. It’s been labeled the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ for the umbrellas protestors used to defend themselves from tear gas. 

The subway TV is usually one source of distraction the subway cars provide, besides the Chinese soap operas I can watch over someone’s shoulder on an iPad mini, is a set of twelve-inch screens placed by the subway doors. On most days they play Chinese commercials and TV programming. For a non-native speaker, the subtitles of the muted TVs flash by at a near subliminal pace, while the commercials themselves change at only a slightly slower rate. A KFC bucket in a ring a fire transitions to a couple jumping for joy over their cellular plan transitions to an elaborately choreographed song and dance for a popular ice tea. 

The non-commercial programming is typically more confusing. There’s a clay animation of sheep launching each other from cannons. Once, I watched three minutes of a drama showing a woman crying next to a comatose intensive care patient before he woke up. They got married right there on the hospital bed seconds later, confetti falling from the ceiling. It’s decent entertainment when watched from slightly above someone else’s head. Some of the smartphoneless commuters watch too. 

As I’m watching the TV now, though, it’s occurring to me that a government that dedicates so much energy to simulating genuine enfranchisement and accountability should probably look into holding its public meetings somewhere other than a theater stage to avoid the sort of visual Freudian slip that only more palpable given what’s happening right now in Hong Kong. 

Hong Kong has always been the odd bird of the PRC, functioning under a more lax system than the mainland after returning to the fold in the 90s from the colonies of the British Crown.  Hong Kong politically and culturally still enjoys a lingering identification with the West, and this makes for no small amount of tension and animosity between the city and the mainland. 

But now housing prices are high. Competition with educated mainlanders is killing the local college students. Income inequality is growing and you can only live on a dream for so long. The mainstream media doesn’t report heavily on it, and will only begin to make references to “extremists” congregating in downtown Hong Kong. 

The government has been feverishly censoring social media posts mentioning Hong Kong police or the Umbrella Revolution too. Some people have been posting pictures of Xi Jinping carrying umbrellas to get around the censors, an acerbic in-joke for the blogger community. Unsurprisingly, most rely on mainstream media. 

Other than me, nobody is watching the TV this time. Looking down the car, it could be any other week. A lot of faces are obscured by an Apple product or glowing with touchscreen backlight. Some are sleeping.  Some stare at the space above the heads of the passengers sitting across from them. The girl next to me is shooting colored marbles at more colored marbles on her phone. She’s beating her high score.