Good manners matter on the crowded Metro

Wan Lixin
It would be a challenge how this injunction against crossed legs on Metro might be worded so that it takes into account all the sundry innovative forms of misplaced legs.
Wan Lixin

After a ride on the Metro Line 8 in Shanghai on Saturday, my wife complained of a stiff neck, which she blamed on the blast of cold air. I asked why she did not avoid direct exposure by moving away from where she stood, and her reply was that the train was too crowded for such maneuver.

With summer heat set in, Metro becomes the preferred means of transport, with many lines registering record passenger numbers.

The period also coincides with the summer vacation, with an influx of visitors from outside the city, some encumbered with heavy luggage, and many with school-age children in tow. Given such aggravations, it is a solace to learn that the practice of erlangtui, or sitting with the legs crossed and one foot poised in the air, is being stigmatized.

Such crossed legs, while suggesting casualness or ease in private function, can be intimidating for passengers who want to thread their way through crowded Metro train. Undeterred passengers, to avoid a brush with these protrusions, have to zigzag along. Successfully negotiating these hurdles calls for dexterity, for you have to watch out for the sturdily built straps dangling from the bars (running into these could give your head quite a stun).

Some might say, why not simply ask people to put down their legs.

This, too, could be complicated.

First, there are too many crossed legs. Second, bringing up this seemingly trivial issue can be more subtle than you imagined. Depending on individual interpretation, the disposition of one's limbs can be perceived as a matter of personal idiosyncrasy, something bordering on basic rights, thus even if broached with tact, the subject might wax touchy.

I remembered that preschool-age boy who was traveling on Line 8 with his grandmother. He was sitting athwart at the end of the bench, with both his legs thrust through an arc formed by iron bars and the surface of the bench.

The sight brought me in mind of an accident on February 16, when an inebriated passenger, taking advantage of a relatively empty car, chose to sleep full length on a Metro 8 train bench. When breaks were applied abruptly in nearing a station, the inertia caused the man's head to be trapped in the arc. When the train arrived at the Shiguang Road terminal, it took the emergency personnel a good five minutes to dislodge the person's head from the yoke.

Thus I helped the boy extricate his legs out of the shackles.

I did not get any thanks for my effort.

A few days after I met the duo again, with the boy's feet in exactly the same position, though that time I had the sense of refraining from taking any remedial moves. After a few stops, the grandmother, speaking in local dialect that she presumed to be beyond my intelligence, and taking care to have the message delivered in a deliberately neutral tone, advised the boy "you had better withdraw your feet, otherwise that jerk might make a fuss again."

My station has come, and I had to leave in a haste, though not without a parting shot which was, regretfully, was not more hard-hitting. So the Metro authority seems to be in a better position to regulate these seemingly innocuous misdemeanors. There was a time when parents deemed it their duty to inculcate in their children notions about sitting and standing properly, with the message couched in such crispy idiom as "sitting like a bell, standing like a pine tree, and walking like a gush of wind."

People brought up properly still care about this, but if you look around a Metro today, you would be struck by how people choose to exhibit their limbs creatively. Strangely, this innovative display often reminds me of Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," although I have never read the book.

So if the classic style of crossing of legs is well-known, there are more fancy variants. I once saw a young woman in skirt putting two of her legs on her male partner's lap. Maybe through this "public display of affection" the two might get more satisfaction from curious looks cast their way than their mobile phones both seemed to be absorbed in.

Recently on Metro Line 8, I also saw one young man put one of his legs on a piece of luggage, so that the leg perched horizontally at a height of about one meter. But do women in short skirts constitute extenuating circumstances?

Given the passengers' versatility, if the Metro authority intends to discourage such behaviors, it would be a challenge how this injunction against crossed legs on Metro might be worded so that it takes into account all the sundry innovative forms of misplaced legs, and maybe the extenuating circumstances.

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