Last night I was skyping with my friend Jess, currently doing her own expat thing on a Fulbright in Hong Kong, and we got to discussing why people in India and China (and probably lots of other parts of Asia and the developing world) don’t instinctively queue up, form lines, or behave with “enlightened self-interest” as crowds. In the West we automatically follows the more or less fair rules of queuing, but here if you try to wait in line for, say, the post office window, you will probably be waiting for a while, as people just come up to the front and force their business through. At the Stunt Mania yesterday the audience was pushing in so much that the motorcycles barely had room to do their tricks. I’m sure they must have realized that if they just stayed back as a group they would get a better show, but still each individual kept moving in so that they themselves could get the best view. It was the same at the monastery on Losar. Kids and old people were supposed to go in to see the Rimpoche first, but no one was willing to give up their spot near the entrance to let them through. So the kids had to be passed up over the heads of the crowd, a long process that delayed the whole procedure by twenty minutes. Don’t even get me started on the dozens or hundreds of people trampled to death every year in India (and the Middle East and elsewhere) by mobs stampeding for one reason or another. The crowd takes on a life of its own, swaying this way and that, undulating and jostling with some weird emergent behavior as everyone tries to make the most out of an increasingly uncomfortable situation.
It isn’t like the people running these events don’t try to control the crowd. On Losar there was a monk screaming at the worshipers through a megaphone, and at Nayuma Stunt Mania you had cops, organizers and even guys on motorcycles physically pushing the spectators back to make room for the stunts. But as soon as these guys moved away the crowd would ooze forward again.
At the Stunt Mania there wasn’t really proper stands or anything for people to watch from, and enough people showed up that it was impossible to see if you were stuck at the back. So people climbed trees and got on top of cars and stood precariously on railings, grabbing on to each other for balance. That I sort of understand, but the behavior of the crowd itself still puzzles me.
Jess thinks it may have something to do with our deep rooted beliefs about whether society’s rules and institutions are going to work for us, or just screw us over. In societies with lots of corruption, you have to grab yours before someone else does, but in places where rules are executed more or less mechanically you can afford a little patience because you know that everyone has to behave to the same standards. Jess says this is why in Japan everyone always stays on their side of the escalator: people trust and believe in their rules to make things better for everyone equally. I for one wonder if it has something to do with how many effective rules people encounter on a daily basis. The roads aren’t wide enough to keep people in separate lanes, and everything is too haphazardly build for traffic lights or even stop signs. But that doesn’t explain, as Jess points out, why Hong Kong natives don’t queue up either, as HK is pretty straight up developed. Maybe it has something to do with overcrowding and overpopulation, but Sikkim is pretty sparsely peopled; the whole state has fewer residents than a few square miles of Mumbai slums.
Seems to me there is just a vicious circle here. People could try to line up at the box office to get their movie tickets, but they know that someone will just cut in front of them, so they don’t. How do you break the cycle of “everyone does it, so I’ll do it too”?