I have always claimed that taking a public bus in Beijing is the best way to discover Chinese culture, and I still believe it after 20 years.
Once, on a crowded vehicle, I was sitting while an old man standing beside me seemed to suffer from the weight of a bag on his shoulder. I got up for him, but instead of sitting, he protected the seat from rivals while he called a plump 10-year-old boy who made his way among the crowd and sat down. He didn't even give the schoolbag back to the child to carry. I was so angry that I almost asked for my place back. A Western outlook is not so accepting of a child sitting before any adult, man or woman.
I noted that with the 2008 Olympics, China gained a little in civilized behavior, but it didn't last long. People of both genders give more easily their seat to a child than to the elderly. Those sitting in front of a pregnant woman or a handicapped person are usually sleeping, or completely fascinated by their video games, or absorbed by their cell phones. It's not their fault if they don't see the poster indicating which people the seats they occupy are reserved for, as this graphic is behind their backs. It's probably the reason why the subway administration put a second one a little higher, so the persons in need who are standing can see it and rage about it, while the passengers sitting can continue to ignore it.
Voiced messages on the subway remind passengers: "This is our nation's tradition to help the elderly and those in need." It always makes me smile: It's not Chinese tradition; any educated person - no matter what their country, race, or religion - has learned to behave this way. It's sad to say but, after two decades among the Chinese and having traveled the world, my conclusion is the Chinese are one of the nations with the most "rites" of politeness - but one of the least polite.
Since last year, buses running from downtown to the suburbs have six yellow-covered seats reserved for four categories of passengers. At the beginning, conductors used to ask those who sat first to leave their seats in favor of old, sick, pregnant and handicapped passengers, but now, they don't, and no one cares. Should needy persons beg?
Once, I was invited by the ticket controller to let an elderly man sit. I took it as a compliment as I was surely older than him. Is it normal that the conductor has to suggest passengers let an old lady, or a parent carrying a child, sit? Passengers feel obliged to accept when asked personally, while they can turn a deaf ear to the anonymous voice in the subway.
When five passengers occupy a bench designed for six in a subway car, no one moves to let one more sit. Chinese don't dare asking, but I often ask people to make room for me, or for another passenger.
It usually happens that a student or young adult glances at me for several minutes before he or she makes a move. Are they wondering whether I deserve a seat as a woman, or because of my age, or as a foreigner? The fact is that when they get up, other passengers think they are just getting off and jump on the seat. Those who offer their seat should notify, with a smile or a gesture, the person they offer it to. Are they shy to be polite?