Friend Tricia Wang is spending a year in China doing fascinating research on poor migrants and their use of technology. She recently shared an excellent write up regarding her experience undercover as a migrant on the Beijing subway.
I've lived in China for several years, most of which have involved riding the subway around Chinese cities. As a commenter on Tricia's blog pointed out, we foreigners in China receive similar reactions when riding the subway as migrant workers.
I think there are two discrete reactions during her undercover experience, the origins of which deserve exploration. The first is the response of subway riders when Tricia and Yang Jie (the migrant worker) get on the subway with poor personal hygiene and with large amounts of freight. The second is reaction of the rider when he saw Tricia's iPhone and texting in English.
The first is not a class issue, but an issue of community standards. The subway (in Guangzhou at least...and from what I recall from my Beijing days, it was the similar) has traditionally been a way to commute to work and get around for middle/upper middle class people -- generally white collar. The subway is more comfortable (or used to be..but that's another story all together), faster and more reliable than trying to get a cab in the heat, dealing with traffic or dealing with driving and trying to find parking. This position as a luxury form of public transit was reinforced by limited subway coverage and relatively high pricing compared public buses. Regarding limited coverage, until recently, in both Beijing and Guangzhou, subway coverage was mostly limited to a few central business and residential areas. Not the places large numbers of migrants lived. Back in 2003, when I lived in Beijing, buses were exactly 50% cheaper than taking the subway. Until last year in Guangzhou, the Guangzhou metro started at 2 yuan and prices went well in excess of 10 yuan per trip. In contrast, almost all in-city buses cost 2 yuan.
Since Subway transit developed as a premium form of public transit, the community standards that developed around subway transit in Chinese reflect this. Personal hygiene is important. Cleanliness is important. Not making fellow riders have an unpleasant trip is important. (ie. using a premium public transit method to move freight around.) If people wanted to have a miserable public bus experience, they wouldn't have paid more for the subway.
As an aside, this reminds me of a time I was riding Hong Kong's MTR from Tung Chung back to Hong Kong station with some friends. There was an overweight older white gentleman sitting across the aisle who apparently just completed a difficult hike on a mountain on Lantau. He decided it would make sense on Hong Kong's sparkling clean MTR to take his shirt off and expose his sweaty folds of fat to the clean seats and surrounding riders. People quickly shunned him, moved away and started whispering and throwing dirty looks. One of my friends asked me to "go tell your 'countryman' to put his shirt back on...we don't do this here!"
If you don't adhere to accepted community standards in the subway, people will treat you the same as if you showed up to a black tie affair wearing shorts and sandals. Dirty looks, whispers, avoidance are par for the course.
The second issue, the rider's reaction to Tricia's iPhone and English texting, is simply surprise to see someone acting inconsistent with an accepted stereotype. The average Chinese subway rider would assume someone who can afford and iPhone and is educated enough to text in English wouldn't go out in public without showering for days and take freight on the subway. This is the same as the reaction I get when fellow subway riders see me texting and weiboing in Chinese. The average rider assumes that a foreigner wouldn't have learned to read and write Chinese. Chinese subway riders make these assumptions (stereotypes) because they are almost always true. iPhone wielding Tricia disguised as migrant and Larry the Chinese texting foreigner are a rarity on Chinese subways.
I encourage everyone interested in China and technology to follow Tricia's Bytes of China blog.