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People Mountain People Sea

Finishing Chinese class at 6pm meant knowingly taking the subway during rush hour. But this isn’t any regular post-work rush hour.

This was Chinese rush hour.

There’s a common saying in Chinese to describe this sort of phenomenon. The saying, “人山人海”, rén shān rén hăi, literally translates to “people mountain, people sea,” and if you’ve ever been to China you’ll know why this saying is frequently used in everyday life (also, try saying it to your Chinese friend. They’ll have a good laugh!). Sometimes, it really does feel like you’re swimming in a sea of people or climbing a mountain of limbs.

Such was the case today at the subway station. At around 6:30pm, I got off my train to transfer to the other train which heads directly to my apartment building. I knew it was busy as I walked through the station amidst a swarm of people just getting off work. But, being it was my first time transferring trains at this station mid-rush hour, I was neither mentally nor physically prepared for what I was about to encounter.

Here’s what the lineup looked like:

Not sure if “lineup” is the right word

And if you’re thinking, ‘meh, that’s not so bad,’ this wasn’t the lineup for the train: this was the lineup for the escalator!

My mind raced, trying to think of alternative routes home. Bus? No, too much traffic. Cab? No, same thing, but pricier. Another subway line? But before I knew it, like the rising of the tide a mob came swarming in from behind and trapped me in the middle of the crowd with no place to go. Shoulder to shoulder with the people on my sides, chest to back with the people in front and behind, I could literally feel the sweat from everyone’s clothes and their warm breath on my neck as we all inched carefully to the escalator platform. When you’re in a crowd like that, you’re not so much walking as being nudged closer and closer towards your destination. I probably could have stood completely still and somehow ended up where I wanted to go. It’s times like these that call for an impromptu crowd surfing moment.

Alas, I finally made it on the escalator.


From there, the crowd had spread out and filed in front of each train door with the guidance of subway attendants. The train arrived immediately and we all rushed in. I was surprised to find it was nearly empty, because this subway line is usually packed during rush hour. Then it hit me. I was at the station where everybody gets on. Here was the source of the crowded trains, and today, I was a part of it. My schadenfreude kicked in and I relished watching people have to stand in line and wait for the next train because this one was too full. So even though it took me a good five to ten minutes of being pushed and prodded by a hundred people, it was worth it to guarantee a spot on the ever-crowded rush hour train.

So, remember this saying whenever you’re in China: “人山人海”, rén shān rén hăi. It’ll make moments like these a little more lighthearted and bearable. And thinking about its literal meaning, “people mountain, people sea,” and how ridiculous it sounds, will hopefully bring a welcome smile to your face.

Published inChina LifeCulture

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