There is no delight in owning anything unshared. – Seneca
Welcome to Hong Kong. Population: 7 million. Welcome to Yangon. Estimated population: 6 million. Welcome to Tokyo. Population: hovering around 13 million. Welcome to Bangkok. Population: 12 million and rising.
In the past few months, I’ve travelled through Asia, making pits stops in some of Asia’s most populated cities. I’ve played Frogger crossing Bangkok’s chaotic streets in thick hazes of automotive exhaust. I’ve crammed myself immobile into a Tokyo rush hour train. I’ve disappeared into the confusing, dusty streets of Yangon while trying not to disappear altogether into the fathoms of the gaping sidewalk potholes.
It all started on an impromptu extended stay in Hong Kong, where population density felt the greatest with its glittering sea of skyscrapers. Being in crowded cities is not new to me, but this time around, I found myself in a situation observing people and culture more. To start, I had checked into a windowless, roughly 4-metre squared room in the infamous Chungking Mansion building, where an estimated 4,000 people live. It was a mind-numbingly sterile, white cell requiring me to squeeze by my bed and hop over my backpack just to get to the bathroom, where the toilet and shower are conveniently one unit. Not particularly comfortable in such tight quarters, I took to the streets, only to find myself shuffling shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers on the busy sidewalks. There seemed to be no escape.
What could I do? Smile, observe, and continue to do so for the remainder of my trip.
Maybe you’ve never been to a big Asian city before, but I’m sure you’ve experienced crowds of people in other parts of the world, whether it be New York, London, or Sao Paulo. Or perhaps while leaving a popular concert en masse. Being stuck in a nightmare traffic jam. Waiting at the Driver’s License office on a Friday afternoon. Yesterday, I was at the Toronto CNE, Canada’s largest fair. During a rainstorm, like everyone else, I ducked into the Food Building and soon found myself squeezing into a long table eating lunch amongst a table of strangers. And then I heard someone exclaim something I’m sure all of us had said at one point in our lives:
Why are there so many people?!?
Back in North America, where I often live, we have plenty of space which has been abused to abandon. In fact, this month’s issue of Toronto Life magazine is entitled “Exodus To The Burbs: The Houses Are Bigger. The People Are Nicer. The Commute Doesn’t Suck. “, though to be fair, the author actually moved to a smaller town, not a sprawling Toronto suburb. However, if I had to define culture-shock, it wasn’t showing up in the packed streets of Hong Kong. It was visiting an enormous suburban Walmart on my first day back in Canada while visiting my mother. It was such a stark contrast from where I had came from. I wandered the gaping aisles observing the space in awe, thinking of the golf-course sized parking lot outside, the huge bulk items that were meant to be stored in the huge homes nearby … and yet outside, the 6-lane roads were gradually jamming up with cars as rush hour approached.
It’s a crowded world. The fact is, none of us chose to be here. But we’re all here together. Realistically, none of us have a right to more space than others, so it’s best if we remember how to share. Here’s some pointers on how to make the most of it:
1. Share space. I remember meeting up with one of my dance instructors, Lydia, in a particularly busy Hong Kong cafe. We spotted two vacant seats at a table only occupied by a couple. We sat down in the seats and the couple made a little extra room for us. When they vacated, another duo came and instantly replaced them. When Lydia and I left, our seats were filled again. Sitting by yourself? It’s the norm to share a table there. In Tokyo, the culture is somewhat different, so tables are not shared. However, during busy times, you eat your meals quickly to make room for the other customers or park yourself into a ramen (noodle) stall with other single diners. Consequently, recognize that you don’t own a public space, even if you arrived somewhere first. Someone arrives late to a movie and sits in the seat in front of you? That’s what the seat was designed for!
2. Wait with patience. Lineups are common in Asia. As I’ve mentioned before, lineups in Japan are nicely formed long lines with space in between people. In Malaysia, lineups sometimes form in tight, precarious zig-zag patterns, with the potential of someone cutting in front of you! Line cutting aside, you more or less have to wait the same amount of time in both lines. The bottom line is that waiting is common in Asia when there are so many people, and the locals accept that. When I first arrived in Toronto, I remember there was a very minor backup boarding a bus as a man struggled to carry his luggage on. I took notice that everyone behind him was rubbernecking impatiently on the holdup. Perhaps our patience here is shorter so we don’t experience waiting quite as often. Take notice of your waiting tolerance. Then extend it as best as you can.
3. Accept and avoid complaining. It’s easy to dislike cities like Yangon because it first appears as a dirty, crowded city. The citizens there know that their city isn’t the best in terms of appearance, but they still make the best out of it. Maybe your city is cleaner, but you simply have the fortune of better infrastructure, allowing the population impact to be hidden better. When you leave the city in bumper-to-bumper traffic for the summer long weekend, there’s not much you can do when your camping destination is packed to the brim with other people doing the same thing. It’s going to be noisy – that’s just what happens when there’s lots of people. Notice that they simply want the same thing you want. You’re in the same boat. Enjoy what you can or schedule your life outside other people’s hours.
4. Observe. Once you’re able to accept, then maybe you can step it up with some observation. Take something back with you. Appreciate the differences of a crowded area. See how people make the most of it and try it out yourself. Learn something new.
5. Conserve space. In Europe, it’s pretty much the norm to live in IKEA-esque optimized small spaces and drive small fuel-efficient cars. It’s a shame that renting a small apartment or driving a subcompact vehicle here in North America will get you ridiculed for either 1) it’s lack of statement or 2) the suggestion that you are financially tight. Don’t concern yourself with what other people think. Even if you can afford a lot of space, be conscious of what you need as opposed to what you want or can afford. Try to bring your wants closer to your needs. Less is more. Trust me.
6. Use the temple of your mind. Eckhart Tolle wrote in The Power Of Now that the one of the very few good things about money is that it can buy space. At the same time, he also mentioned that if you can’t afford space, as Mr. Tolle himself was once homeless, you always have the temple of your mind to enjoy your space. Meditate, stay present, and be focused.
7. Practice kindness. Many people find big cities unfriendly, but I still see acts of kindness all the time. Hong Kong is crowded, but people will give up their seats for the elderly. Give up your seat, hold a door open, thank the bus driver, and say “hello!” to strangers more. If you live in a big city and perhaps have gradually become an unfriendly walking zombie, take this time to notice your defensiveness and now work on lightening up the people around you. You have the choice not to join the legions of the grumpy.
8. Make small talk. Within a week’s time, I made the transition from busy Tokyo to small town Nova Scotia, where people seem to have a knack for small talk. Try bringing the small talk into the city. Believe it or not, small talk can turn into big conversations as you practice talking to strangers more. And here’s a tip for single guys: That’s pretty much how you meet women you’re attracted to in daytime situations. Don’t worry if you don’t fare so well – the likelihood you’ll run into her again in a big city is slim to none, so give it a shot!
I don’t get to live by different rules. The same boundaries that apply to everyone apply to me. – Tiger Woods