Photo: Bo (“call me Daniel”) Gao

There’s no time to be timid.

When faced with a packed — and I mean “I envy sardines”-jam packed — subway car at rush hour, there is a temptation to hang back and wait for the next car. But the next car will be just as full, and the next car, and the next… You’ll end up being that weirdo standing on the platform for an hour, and mothers will hold-hide their children from you.

You’ve got to confidently claim that spot on the crowded car, even if the pushy, elderly man behind you wants it too. YOU WERE THERE FIRST, and you have just as much a right to get home as he does. Same goes with getting off at your stop. Gently pushing is an unspoken language here, and if you aren’t willing to “communicate” your need to get out of the car, you’ll be riding the rails all the way to mainland China.

The MTR has made me a lot less afraid to just dive in and GET IT.

The concept of “personal space” is different here.

Unlike other places I’ve lived, people are a lot more “casual” about tight spaces. While living in the Tokyo area, I thought the subway was packed there. OH NO. Hong Kong has forever changed my idea of “personal space.”

Basically, in regard to “personal space”, I’ve had to get over it. Hong Kong is a relatively small city with a huge population crammed in — and the MTR feels like a microcosm of that. During rush hours you will have a mouth-breather right up against your back, and you will be poked by other people’s elbows as the train car rocks and jolts. At first you want to SCREAM (or loudly say something to the effect of “I hope my fungus clears up soon!”).

But then you realize you’re all in it together. We’re all elbowing and mouth-breathing on each other, and really, we’re all being pretty cool about it. In a city where millions of people are just trying to go about their lives every day in a limited amount of space, it’s important to remember that nobody can get anything done without being jostled and bumped a bit. I can honestly say the MTR has made me a little more forgiving of my fellow Hong Kongers.

The MTR is Hong Kong’s greatest language coach.

The MTR has made me a world-class eavesdropper. While my Cantonese is decent, sometimes my everyday interactions sound less human and more like an alien who is practicing “HUMAN WORD PATTERNS.”

But because of the MTR, my casual Cantonese has noticeably improved. Listening to a young couple talk about meeting up with friends, I figured out how to say, “We’ll go get a drink” instead of the Thor-like, “Beer. We will drink it!”

Hearing a young woman tell an elderly lady, “This is our stop, this is where we get off the car”, I corrected my former phrasing of “STOP. Here we stop and walk. WALK!” When in doubt, my Cantonese comes out in confusing commands.

And while the MTR has improved my understanding of the way people in Hong Kong actually speak, the one curious side effect has been that I have caught myself absentmindedly repeating what people say. Alright, it’s more than “curious”. It’s creepy. The MTR has become my own version of a “speak-and-repeat” language tape. I just hope my new, improved, “less weird” Cantonese will make up for my MTR transgressions.

Sometimes, barf happens.

To date I’ve encountered free-range vomit three times on the MTR. I’ve also come across a trail of blood twice while walking through stations. Please don’t get me wrong, Hong Kong and its MTRs are not disgusting places. Overall I actually find the MTR stations and cars rather clean for a huge city.

But that’s just it. Hong Kong is a huge city, and in a huge city sometimes “gross” things happen. At first it really freaked me out but now, after the initial “blah”, I can calmly avoid the “accidents” like everyone else.

If I let my inner germaphobe get the best of me in the MTR, my time in Hong Kong would largely be spent hiding in my apartment.

Do not (always) fear the Bitchy Resting Face.

Despite my ability to put not just my foot in my mouth, but my whole ego and some limbs, I am very easily intimidated. When pushed, I’ll speak up, but generally all it takes is someone to scowl at me and I’ll slink away to my corner to think about what I’ve done. Or I’ll just avoid them forever.

But the MTR has taught me that looks can be deceiving. Lots of people sport Bitchy Resting Face (lifetime member of the BRF Club, right here!), but I’ve found that few actually personify it. Sure, I’ve accidentally whacked a stoic, seated businessman in the face with my messenger bag, after which he promptly (and understandably) cursed me under his breath. But I’ve also been helped by individuals who I was sure hated me — until they demonstrated otherwise.

After a long day of work one day, I plopped down in an empty seat on the subway, and proceeded to spill my phone, wallet, and keys from my purse. Thinking for sure the cross-looking woman next to me was wishing she’d taken the next train, she instead bent down and helped me gather my things. As she handed me my phone she smiled and said, “It’s been a long day, right?” I was so grateful for that small kindness.

Another time, I had run out of money on my train card and had to buy a single ticket at the machine. As I plunked coins into the ticket dispenser, I realized I was short by a five dollar coin. Starting to panic, I searched my wallet and bag for coins, but was coming up empty. As I was looking, I noticed a frowning man glancing my way from the next machine. “Great,” I thought, “I’m getting in this guy’s way somehow.”

Feeling my cheeks burn as I scraped the bottom of my bag, I was suddenly aware of an arm reaching past me to put a coin in the machine. The man had given me five Hong Kong dollars to get my ticket. As I thanked him profusely (and probably too loudly) he just nodded, gave a very slight smile, and said, “Don’t worry about it. We’ve all been there. Have a good evening.” And he just walked away.

While I know we should never judge people too quickly, it’s easy to get overwhelmed in a big city and assume everyone is against you. And yes, some people embrace the “bitchy” in Bitchy Resting Face. But discounting everyone who doesn’t have a grin on their face at all times (spooky), is closing yourself off to people who might not be so different than yourself.

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