GW Expat: In China, too many is a way of life

Senior Sam Sherraden, an international affairs major and former Hatchet photo editor, spent the summer studying abroad in Beijing, China and will spend the fall semester further north in Harbin, China. Twice a month, he will share his experiences and observations from the Pacific as one of GW’s many expats.

When I got to the train station in Shandong the ticket window was a madhouse. It was as if the doors on the last train out of Beirut were closing. Some people’s feet weren’t even touching the ground as they were scrambling to buy tickets. Sleeper tickets were sold out – or they didn’t have any. Regardless, I figured with all of the commotion I was lucky just to get on board. As I moved out of the way, someone immediately squeezed into my place. I walked toward the platform and I was on my way to Beijing.

That day I had hiked 5,000 feet up the Tai An mountain, so I was pretty worn out. I was ready to get on the train, put two beers in my hands and sleep through the night. But as I’m standing in line on the platform waiting to board the train, suddenly it starts to move. The attendant shouts, people are scrambling again, and myself and a couple other straggling foreigners are being pushed on board. We’re laughing together, hanging onto the handles of the train and I notice that the train car seems abnormally crowded. I remember seeing “capacity 118” stenciled on the back of the every train car, and I have no idea exactly how many people were in car 7, but we were definitely over capacity.

I’m sweating profusely in the train car and I can see my seat – and another person sitting in it. In fact, there are people in all of the seats, and still many people in the aisle. It was a big game of musical chairs and there were way too many people playing. After 40 minutes of trading spaces with other passengers standing in the aisles and dodging large luggage, I finally make my way to my seat. I make eye contact with the guy sitting in it and he nods, stands up and moves out of the way. I come to find out that all the people who are losing the game of musical chairs are actually ticket holders – standing tickets.

I found out later that the trains are especially crowded in China at the beginning and end of summer because of the millions of university students throughout the country going to and from school. In fact, I’m one of them. I’m on my way to Harbin, in the Heilongjiang province in Northeast China, to start my semester abroad at the Harbin Institute of Technology.

How a country slightly smaller than the U.S. has room for 1.3 billion people is hard for me to imagine – and something that really hit home after that train ride. You could take all of the people in the U.S., subtract it from China’s population and China would still have a billion citizens. It’s an easy number to say. Everyone knows China is the most populous country in the world, but where do these people live? How much food do they eat? How do they all get jobs? There are an unimaginable number of lives in such a small country.

But then you look around and see it in action. You board the train and there are over 200 people in one car. Or you go somewhere to eat and four people are standing on either side of the door saying, “Welcome to our restaurant.” Or, like in my case this past week, I arrive at school and there are dorms with over 4,000 students in them.

Now at GW, Thurston is a legend for its unruly size. But, there are as many people living on a floor and a half of HIT’s Dorm #1 as there are in our legendary Thurston. One student told me that Dorm #1 is the largest dorm in Asia – which I took to mean the world. The rooms are set up with eight students per room on bunked beds with two desks in the middle. In another room, full of sinks, 800 students hand wash their clothes and hang them to dry.

When on the train, in the dorm, or on the street, it is commonplace to hear Chinese people say, “In China, people are too many.” It’s a unanimous decision, and by the end of the summer I agreed. But then you’ll usually hear a Chinese person follow with, “But there’s no solution.” In China, crowded is just the way of life. When it’s an annoyance, you look at the person next to you and say, “In China, people are too many,” and go on with your day.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.