Back in the United States, the idea of a bus seemed to me a symbol of independence. Growing up in the small-big town of Sioux Falls, SD (population approximately 160,000), my only experience riding the bus was being old enough to take the yellow school bus to middle school everyday. I remember feeling so grown up standing at the corner of Spencer Blvd and Marson Drive waiting for the bus to arrive. But I honestly can say that I have never set foot on a Sioux Falls city bus.
This may seem odd to you city folk or international peeps out there, but in the Midwest we don’t have a public transportation system that is convenient or expansive. Most people own their own car and therefore, drive everywhere!
That being said, I’ve always loved the idea of public transportation, mostly to avoid high gas prices. In college it would have been convenient to have a bus heading south to Nebraska, or how great would it be to have a long-distance shuttle between Sioux Falls and Minneapolis!?
Guyuan is a small-big town of China, with about 500,000 in the metropolitan area (1,500,000 entirely). I love that I can walk almost everywhere and have multiple options to take the bus all over the city (for only 1 yuan) and there are multiple routes across the province. Normally I get to school using the free “teachers” bus provided by the University, but every Wednesday I stay at school to eat lunch with my students and take the city bus home.
The bus stops are not fancy in Guyuan like in bigger cities in China. There is no electronic sign flashing how many minutes until the next bus arrives and I can’t read the route maps. I wait patiently for bus #10 to arrive…sometimes 5 minutes, sometimes 20 minutes (or 45 minutes one night before realizing the bus was no longer running…at 7pm!)
Every bus ride is a new experience. Sometimes I am one of two passengers and other times I am packed in with dozens of other travelers. Almost every time, my appearance is met with surprised eyes, as if to say what is this foreigner doing here or who is this woman? But what surprises me is the diversity of people riding the bus.
I tend to ride bus #10 home during the middle of the day, as the school children are returning to school for their afternoon classes (primary school students physically go home for a 2 hour lunch break). I felt independent in starting to ride the public school bus at age 12, but many of the children that hop on this public city bus, scanning their bus card as they board, are younger than 10! I can’t imagine riding the bus at that age. It is cool to see them greet their classmates as they find their seats, all wearing their matching track-like uniforms. Somedays, if I sit at the back of the bus, the students will file in around me and suddenly I will be surrounded by school children all staring and whispering with giggles. It’s like a game of who will speak to the foreigner first!
When I grab the bus midmorning or later in the afternoon it is much quieter, with older riders. These quaint old locals often will give me a nod and a warm smile, and I find myself thinking that I can’t imagine my grandma riding a city bus! I can’t imagine riding a city bus with my parents let alone my grandparents! But it’s a different normal here!
Riding the bus makes me feel more like a local. It is a 20 minute ride that I am able to be a part of this community, even if I don’t say a word. And while I do miss the independence of having my own car at times, I’m liking this public transportation life.