Busful of Lonely

I finally got my passport back yesterday, so I was able to go open my new Shanghai bank account today. My first payday at my new job comes next week, so I had to be sure to get this done. I’ve been in Shanghai for over two full months without any paychecks yet. I neeeeed that first paycheck as soon as possible!

Anyway, there’s a girl in our company that makes daily runs to the bank the company uses, so I went with her. We took the bus there and back.

It wasn’t yet afternoon rush hour as we made our way back, but the bus was quite full. It was one of those long, electric buses, that works like a glorified, overloaded bumper car (usually with a little less bumping).

It wasn’t until we stopped at a light that I noticed it. There were two older men in the back of the bus chatting. They were at least half the length of the bus away from me, so my first thought was, “wow, those guys are really loud, and they’re not even talking on cell phones.”

Immediately after that, it hit me. Except for those two older men in the back, the bus was dead silent. Everyone was gripping a strap, latched onto a hand rail, nestled in a seat, just staring silently off into nothing.

And I thought, “Wow, it’s so quiet in here. This can’t last.” But it lingered on and on, those two old guys in the back the only dissenters.

“Do you realize that out of all the people on this big long bus, the only two people making any noise are those two guys in the back?” I whispered to her. I think half the bus heard me. She smiled and nodded back.

Then the bus got moving, and it was easy enough to pretend that we were all a part of the energy outside that we were careening through.

Soon thereafter some middle aged ladies got on and started talking. It even got close to a normal Chinese bus scene before we got off at our stop. I think some passengers may even have remembered they were alive.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. FreeJack Says: March 5, 2004 at 7:18 pm

    I was commenting about a similar effect the other day to a friend of mine…it’s so curious to me that nobody ever speaks on an elevator. It’s like a no-talk zone – in fact, I’ve been in the middle of a conversation with someone and when we step on an elevator with others, the conversation ends…and picks up when we step off the elevator. Within the confines of the elevator, people are smiles and nods…but they stare intently at the little flashing numbers, glancing at watches, checking bags. They dare not attempt to break the impenetrable silence of the ELEVATOR.

    It’s like the cone of silence in Get Smart. Humans can be very strange animals, sometimes…

  2. Why weren’t YOU carrying on a conversation? Electric bus = horizontal elevator?

  3. You should have gone with HSBC. They are a great bank.

  4. FeeJack,

    Yeah, I’ve noticed that too. I feel the pressure to conform to the unspoken rule when I’m in the elevator, too.

    During the height of SARS, there were actually signs in elevators asking people not to talk on the elevator, but I think the phenomenon probably predates that.

  5. This entry sucked!~

  6. k, I take it back John! I loved your boring entry!!! 😀

  7. Da Xiangchang Says: March 7, 2004 at 1:42 am

    Biggest difference between bus rides in America and China: there are a LOT of hot women on Chinese buses.

  8. I’ve seen this in various places I’ve been – small towns, medium-sized cities, and large metropolitan areas. This perpetual feeling of loneliness and alienation is ever-present, but ironicly so, because the number of people around us keeps growing.

    Bus rides in Berkeley are always interesting because you’re never sure what you’re going to get: a group of visually-impaired openly talking about sex and rape, throngs of young children – no more than four feet tall – happily enjoying their school trips, elderly couples sharing conversation and stories of better times from back in the day, and of course, the many homeless individuals who come on the bus with carts of their only belongings.

    There is minimal interaction (sometimes just a second of eye contact) between me and these people. But sure, I’ll strike up the occasional conversation with an old lady or some other interesting individual.

    With the general atmosphere of gloom here in the States, as people continue to tighten their belts, the expression “each man for himself” has become glaringly obvious. The sight of people with their heads down and just plowing through has become more and more familiar. The concept of “community” has slowly slipped to the wayside.

  9. Interesting that the Lao Wai Monologues’ latest entry is about relationships and has a bit on a bus.

  10. How the hell does this senseless claptrap get nine comments so quickly! I hate being short in China. And by “short in China” I mean unpopular! I’m going to live with the pygmies, or become Tom Cruise’s butler. Maybe then my 5’7″ (and a half!!) ass will get some respect (probably not.) You shallow bastards. I hope you all succumb to smoke inhalation in a house fire.

  11. Nice… quiet

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