Despite all the progress modern China has seen these past ten years, I think it's very hard and slow process to change fundamental cultural attitudes among such a large number of people. The most obvious one to me on my trip was China's notoriously nonexistent "queue culture." Remember before the Olympics, when we heard reports of the government teaching people how to line up politely? This is no joke. Having been to China and Taiwan many times before, I knew this. But I was still alternately horrified and fascinated by the idea that not lining up was the cultural standard, and no one gave it any other thought. Fairness? Order? Physical safety? These simply weren't issues.
To make a long story short, I was in the waiting room of the train station in Hangzhou, and I thought I was sort of "in line" to go through the closed double doors leading the platform. Within a few minutes, however, I found myself trapped in the center of a large, amorphous crowd. And the when the double doors opened, the entire crowd surged forward as one, like trying to squeeze a water balloon through a straw.
People behind me and to my sides were pushing at me, insistent on shuffling toward the doors, despite the hundreds of people (and me) blocking their way. I held onto the handle of my suitcase for dear life, lest I get separated from it in the massive heave. It got turned sideways, making it impossible to roll, and I held my ground, dragging and shuffling my way forward.
As soon I got past the doorway, the coast was completely clear. The train platform was so large that it felt like a completely empty Grand Central Station platform, and the train itself was brand-spanking new: clean, modern, and roomy. Stewards were coming through the cars offering free coffee and bottled water. It was lovely.
And our seats? They were all assigned. Seriously.