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Shanghai commute: A survivors' battle

Shanghai subway at rush hour

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: No matter how bad your commute is, how many hours you spend sitting in traffic or stuck on a crowded subway car, be thankful you work where you do and not in Shanghai.

Our China correspondent Scott Tong says his trip to and from the office is kind of a metaphor for doing business there.


CHILD: Bye daddy.

SCOTT TONG: The morning starts out nicely enough. Get dropped off at the subway, down the stairs, through the turnstiles. On the platform the nice lady on the recording reminds me and 20 million others to act civilized. Let folks off the train before you get on. Ah, if it only worked that way. The train comes and people just charge each other. It sounds Darwinian, every man for himself, but cultural critic Zhu Dake says China's tumultuous history explains a lot.

ZHU DAKE: When the communists took over in 1949, Beijing abandoned China's core value -- civility. Then the Cultural Revolution promoted violence against enemies, so don't blame the people for their behavior. They're victims.

One writer calls China 1 billion survivors, white collar and blue collar survivors, and today it feels like all of them are on my train.

KENT KEDL: As Americans our personal space is measured in, you know, eighteen inches, or I can't remember what it is.

China veteran Kent Kedl is a business consultant.

KEDL: Here it's nanometers, or something, micrometers, or zero.

Kedl says there's a "limited pie" mentality here. People know it's a unique moment for China: economic opportunity and jobs and deals, and they're all scrambling for a slice. And If you're a businessman who thrives on this adrenaline, then chaos is part of the draw of China.

KEDL: No other place in the world can I go home at night and think to myself "Something happened today that I have never seen before in my life." And China is fascinating and interesting and addicting for that reason.

TRAIN CONDUCTOR: Next stop is West Mountain Road

Two more stops. Time to plot my exit strategy. To get to the door the unwritten rule here is to physically push people aside without even saying excuse me.

I'm out. Walking fast, approaching the escalator. And then, unexpectedly, everything stops. A commuter is just standing in the middle of the escalator clogging up all the walkers, and then at the top another guy stops to make a cell phone call so the rest of us have to maneuver around him.

On the street I detour again, around four leisurely co-workers who occupy the entire sidewalk. Getting frustrated. What to do? Well, my friend Martin Jennet, at a Danish shipping company, used to employ the "get even" approach.

MARTIN JENNET: I would walk really close to these guys with my elbows out, and just on purpose hit them, you know? Just to let them think. Eh, not any more.

But he says confrontation doesn't get results here, either on the street or in his case negotiating with a state-owned shipping company. You just can't force change on your terms.

JENNET: So it's either I accept the way things are, or I move. I go out. I go home.

Or you go native.

Take the office elevator, my last obstacle. There's always a backup in the morning, and over time I've learned that you have to jostle for position. Otherwise you never get on. Kent Kedl says driving works the same way.

KEDL: When I first got to China I didn't know how to merge into traffic, and I finally realized it was like, you know, Ray Charles behind the wheel. You can't look, and you just hit the gas and go.

His point is, it's a sink-or-swim, save-yourself kind of economy, and you can sense it on the street. As one businessman put it, if we in the West get beat, it's because the Chinese have out-hustled us. Better get to work.

In Shanghai, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.
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