The realities of life through the bus window

Trip Start Jun 03, 2006
Trip End Jun 03, 2009

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Flag of China  ,
Tuesday, May 29, 2007

I thought I'd left commuting behind when I left London, but after a while without it, I actually found that I missed the solid routine, the familiar faces of people you've never spoken to, and most of all the time with your thoughts or something to read.  Strange though it would have seemed to me 15 months ago, and to those who regularly ride London's trains, tubes and buses to work, the novelty of not having a journey wears off, even the ease of a 3 minute stroll to the office is not the panacea it might seem.  The thing is, work creeps, you do favours, you push things back in the day because it's only a short journey and suddenly you don't have any you time.  It's the ethos of living on campus.
I have chosen to commute once again; maybe not every day, but at least 4 days a week.  It was my way of getting control back and giving myself more freedom. The bus journey may not always be comfortable, sometimes it is loathsomely slow, but it is my choice on my time and my brain can entertain itself with books, ideas, a short nap or speaking bad Chinese to the other passengers.  It's when I turn on and turn off at either end of the day. I'm actually fresher, more relaxed and more productive. I can see the difference between me and the people around me and at the risk of being self-congratulatory, the difference is growing.
A few months ago, I wrote about feeling a dulling of the mind, but my journey is helping to shake that off.  And so it was that this morning, I found myself looking through the bus window, not just gazing, but really concentrating on looking.  What I found showed me how my life surrounded by factory compounds, grubby street canteens and workers changing shifts around the clock has cloaked me with an immunity to the reality of what they are.  One image in particular as the bus waited in the traffic will stay with me a long time.
Workers were stumbling out of a narrow passage between two dormitory blocks dressing themselves as they moved.  They were skinny figures heading towards a hole in the wall where breakfast was obviously being served.  In front of the hatch stood a crowd of men and women all in the omnipresent pale blue work shirts and all shoving food into their mouths.  They stood on a thin strip of concrete facing 10 lanes of traffic (all using leaded fuel).  The faces looked blank, the eyes seemingly trying to escape to another place, and perhaps it was just my heightened sensitivity to the situation, but all around was grime.  Ahead of them would be a 12 hour shift, then back to the dormitory.  For most of them, that would be their life 14 days out of 15.  They weren't shouting about it, but in their young, yet lined faces it showed.
Downtown Shenzhen is modern, luxurious, with some world-class infrastructure and spectacular architecture.  It's easy to think of the place as a genuinely modern, international city.  Those tired eyes eating breakfast at the side of the road are a reminder that things are not quite what they seem.  They are the lucky ones too. The fate of the migrant worker is often a brutal one, and the growing gulf between those who own and inhabit the shiny skyscrapers and those who live in these Dickensian conditions poses many challenges and questions for China's future.
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