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  • Beatrice Tamagno

Songs of a Shanghainese Summer Commute

The average commuting time in Shanghai is fifty-one minutes. That is more or less what awaits you every morning from the moment you unlock your yellow shared bike until you step into the office, drenched in sweat and usually late.

Whoever spent some time in one of the countless Chinese metropolises knows how crucial it is to live next to a subway station. Those who live in Shanghai know it even better, as taxi fares here are almost twice as expensive than in other Chinese cities. If you, like me, don't have the luck of living within walking distance from the station, the first thing that will happen to you every morning is a quick round-up of all the Gods you know as you search for the closest shared bike. Then you check whether both breaks (or at least one) are working, take out the trash from the basket, and set off. At times, you will notice that water is slowly seeping out of the seat and reaching out to your butt cheeks: the bike seat was cut by a 他妈的 fellow rider, and it absorbed what feels like three liters of the rain that fell the night before. It is summer, after all.

After speeding through a hoard of scooters delivering food and kuaidi, the subway station appears on the horizon. Before diving into a subterranean ocean of air conditioning, grabbing some breakfast is a must: freshly baked baozi, whatever cheap food the Family Mart has to offer, literally anything that can keep you alive during the numbness of the long subway ride.

The employee at the security check is more interested in your outfit than the contents of your bag, but you show it to them anyway. A few steps later, the QR code on your phone opens the gate and, as you slide down to the platform, the tension starts to build up. “Will I be able to sit today? I didn't sleep much, and I biked twenty minutes on an empty stomach, I deserve it after all."

But, guess what, you are not the only one feeling entitled to a seat.

The doors open in front of you, and, although you carefully calculated where to stand in order to be the first one to go in, one ayi slides in from your left, and, as fast as the wind, she takes your seat. Then she proceeds to unlock her phone and starts scrolling TikTok, full volume. Pressed against the opposite door, you eat your breakfast, standing and sighing. The music blasting in your earphones will never be loud enough to protect you from the phone call the shushu next to you just began. Perhaps Shanghai should have never developed an ultra-fast Wi-Fi connection in the subway, you think.

Station after station, the subway gets filled up with even more people, and you notice a guy is staring at you from the other side of the carriage. Now he is taking a video of you. After all, it doesn't happen every day to see a foreigner on the subway, might as well record it. Finally, the train approaches Nanjing East Road, where line ten intersects with line two, aka your only chance to sit as many people get off to change.

But guess what, you are not the only one aware of that.

While you were busy ordering your coffee, the ayis around you already worked their way through the middle section of the carriage, further away from the doors and closer to the seats. They can smell who is going to get off and where, and place themselves exactly in between that seat and you. With their imposing red curly perms and gravity-defying hairstyles, they look fierce and unafraid. After all, in Shanghai, the most crowded city of the most crowded country of the world, they must have spent a lifetime fighting for their space.

Eventually, you push your way out of the train and emerge on the surface in what looks like any other mall in China, but with a clear destination in mind: the coffee shop where you ordered your coffee through a WeChat mini-program thirty minutes before. The coffee is there, silently waiting for you, pressed against dozens of others, on a counter as crowded as the subway you just got off from. By the time you reach for your caffeinated cup of happiness, you realize you are already five minutes late and run through the last five hundred meters to the office, feeling the same pressure Usain Bolt feels when running for a gold medal at the Olympics.

Unfortunately, what awaits you at the finish line is not a gold medal, but your boss, in a bad mood, like every single morning.


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