We got lucky. The rush hour crowds were ebbing away as we reached Beijing’s metro Line 1. The platform was half-empty. There was no panicked crush to pour into the carriages when the train arrived, and inside our car, we could choose where we stood.

I slid into the corner beside the linking door to the next carriage, My Man beside me leaning against the overhead bar. In the other corner was a young couple, in their private fascination oblivious to the rest of the passengers, if not the world. Holding onto the central vertical pole directly in front of the doors were two teenage female BFFs, intensely aware of every male on board and every female worth competing against. Their style and confidence labelled them as privileged; whether the other members of their families were as pampered is another matter. Between ourselves and the door was an office worker in his early thirties, short, stocky and anonymous. He was also hunched protectively over the object of his absorption; this time a smartphone.

The train pulled into the notoriously-overcrowded Guomao station smack in the middle of the city’s Central Business District. People flowed out and flowed in. As they did so, we noticed a see-through plastic beverage cup in a plastic bag on the ground where the smartphone man had been standing. Whether it was his or not, I can’t say. I never saw him holding anything. My Man said, “Oh look, someone forgot their cup.” At that precise moment, a woman who had just entered also saw the cup. Her reaction was to throw her own rubbish — the core of an apple or pear in a plastic bag — down beside the cup, nudging it with her foot until they rested side-by-side.

My Man and I gave each other “a look”. It took us just a split second to charge, trial, convict, and judge that woman. She was young, in her late twenties. Young enough to be familiar with the norms and etiquette of modern transport. No excuse there. Her smart leather jacket, well-kept hair and confident demeanour showed she was no newcomer to the metropolis. No excuse there. She had an intelligent face, and obviously had a good enough job to be able to afford nice clothes and leisure activities in Beijing’s city centre. No possibility of pulling the ‘uneducated’ card. As far as we were concerned, she was guilty of being another one of the millions of selfish boors that populate this city, flaunting the rules and their civic duties because they know they’ll get away with it. All to save themselves a slight inconvenience, like stopping at a red light, moving their bike off the path into the cycle lane when, driving one block over to the one-way street where traffic moves in their direction, moving the fuck over on the pavement so they don’t bash into people walking the other way. Basic common decencies, you would think.

But what sort of sentence could we dole out? As she prepared to get off, coincidentally at our transfer station, I snarkily suggested telling her she’d forgotten her rubbish. I would have left the rubbish there too and left the train, safe in the knowledge it wasn’t my mess. But, as so often, My Man put me to shame by picking up both the cup and the fruit core and bringing them out to find a bin.

We had to switch from Line 1 to Line 2. It involves walking up a flight of stairs in the middle of the platform, turning either left or right down a corridor, then up another pretty long flight of stairs to another corridor and down another stairs to the Line 2 platform. It’s an old station; there’s no escalators, or elevators, to help the overloaded traveller or mother with pushchair and groceries. You’re left to depend on the kindness of strangers… in Beijing… Hah!

When we reached the Line 2 platform, My Man deposited the rubbish in a bin. He turned to me and said, “Maybe we shouldn’t blame her for throwing the rubbish. Look how long it took me to find a bin.” I paused, thinking, and replied, “There’s bins on every platform.” He looked around for other bins, with the only visible one right down at the other end of the platform. He gestured at it and asked how are people supposed to find it when the platform is busy, or if they’re in a hurry? Will they let their train go so they can walk all the way down to dump an empty drinks cup? He said it’s easier pay someone to go around cleaning up after people rather than invest in enough bins on the platforms and in the trains themselves.

Will people put their rubbish in bins if there’s not enough bins to use? If the countryside is littered with rubbish dumped out of sight from farmsteads? If there’s an army of people to clean up after them on the streets, the metros, their offices, even the ayis in their own homes? What incentive will the majority of people have to take responsibility for themselves if there’s neither a stick nor a carrot to encourage them? Red lights will continue to be broken, one-way streets violated and rubbish chucked on the ground. As they say, if you want change, start with yourself.


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