And we thought we had to go to the zoo to watch animals.
PRAGUE, Czech Republic- some months back I asked a young Pakistani guy in Brooklyn what surprised him most about the United States. He didn’t hesitate:
“The big yellow school buses. They are just like they are in the Simpsons.”
The school buses, really? So not like the culture, the food, the architecture? The school buses???
It was like when I asked the same question to my French friend Pierre, who studied abroad for a year in Minnesota, or some place like that. His response? The lockers and cheerleaders. “It was just like it is in the movies.”
It is often the most usual things about your culture — the stuff you take for granted to such a degree that you don’t even think about it — that often stand out to visitors. People can’t see their own culture. It’s just too normal to us. But when something is pointed out by a foreigner it gives you this kind of response like, “yeah, I guess you’re right, that is sort of weird.”
The school bus — as it’s done in the USA — doesn’t exist in many countries. Instead, kids take public transport to school and back. They just ride on the same buses, subways, and jeepneys as everybody else. From the start, kids are acculturated into taking public transport — it’s just a way of life — often making them into life-long users.
In the USA, public transport is for people in big cities or poor people. In most of the country, public transport doesn’t really exist. People from other countries often cannot get there heads around the fact that it is impossible to take public transport to the town I grew up in — it just doesn’t exist, the closest that you can get is a place a half hour’s drive away. In the USA, we drive ourselves … and our kids ride to school in big yellow school buses … like in the Simpsons.
I took my girls back to the zoo in Prague today. Getting there is usually a hassle-less affair — we take the subway to a bus and hop off when we get to the gate. But today when we got off the subway and went to the bus stop the scene was very different:
It was full of hundreds — literally — of school children. School here is getting out soon and all of the classes are going on their annual trip to the zoo. I couldn’t believe it: are they really going to pack this many kids on a public bus? Yes, they were. They don’t have big yellow school buses here.
We needed to get on that bus. The next one didn’t come for a half hour and my girls wanted to go to the zoo. Petra, my eldest daughter, and I have lived for large portions of our lives in China. We learned how to survive from the best, and we’re confident that we had the tactics necessary to plow ahead and get on that bus.
However, all of our China-honed skills were no match for the old Czech guy that we watched bushwack a path through a mass of children to the door of the bus. We in his wake like the Jews did Nachshon into a not yet parted Red Sea through the waves of school children. He pushed them to the left and right trampled a few in his hell bent pursuit of the open bus doors. We stepped in side as torrents of five year olds closed in around us.
Kids were everywhere. They were packed in everywhere they could be. Some were layers deep, as the more agile of the climbed up above to hang on the hand hold rails. The mob kept trying to push in from all sides. Kids screamed. The bus driver yelled. There was a commotion directly behind me on the steps leading up to the asile. I couldn’t turn to see because I had one outstretched arm on my nine year old, who got carried up ahead by the current, and the other on my three year old, who was tucked tight up against my legs, but I could tell that the bus driver was trying to tell someone to get off the bus and that person was outrightly refusing to follow the order.
The older guy that we followed onto the bus was sitting in the front seat and was trying to bring the individual who was fighting with the bus driver up to him. Myself and a half dozen kids were in his way. He grabbed me and told me to get off the bus. I said no. He then started pushing me to the side but there was nowhere to move to. I told him sternly that I wasn’t moving and to stop touching me. He kept pushing me and I realized what he was doing when I saw an old wrinkly forearm with a walking pole attached to it reach up ahead and grab the bar in front of the seat:
The f’cking guy was trying to force his half-crippled old wife up into his seat.
But there was no room.
A mild tussle ensued. I consider socking the guy.
“You should have drove a car or taken a taxi!” I exclaimed in exasperation, and then started laughing. It was ridiculous… but what I didn’t expect was for the other adults standing around to agree with me. They laughed and shook their heads too. “It’s unbelievable,” one guy said.
Finding himself without the support of his people, the old guy got up out of his seat, steamrolled three children, and somehow squeezed himself down onto the steps and his half-crippled 60-something year old hag into the seat.
I kind of admire the old guy’s resolve — smashing children and getting mildly physically aggressive with some foreign guy so his wife could get a seat on the bus to the zoo. The bus shouldn’t have been that full. I don’t know what the regulations are here, but they all were more than likely violated. The scene was something out of India. But on the other hand, if your wife has special needs and requires a seat and there’s a zillion school kids on the bus, pay the $5 for a taxi.
However, if he didn’t bushwack me a path through the kids there would have been no way I would have gotten on the bus and I would have had to pay $5 for a taxi. So I guess I appreciated it.
When I got off the bus the old guy and I nodded at each other and smiled. We made it to the zoo, hopefully to see some other animals more civil and well-behaved than the two of us.