The thing to know about standing in line in China is: people don’t stand in line in China.
This may be hard to imagine for the Western folk who’ve never been to Asia. It was for me when I read about it before I got there.
Me: No lines? You mean people just crowd around the cash register and push each other to see who gets to go next?
In the more serious places, like customs at the airport, there are signs that explicitly state that it’s necessary to form a line. These places are roped off in neat, orderly rows, and there is often a person in a fancy suit to direct the line making. In these places everyone lines up with no problem, but if there aren’t any signs or ropes or people to enforce the line making, anything goes.
This took a long time to get used to. There were so many times when, forgetting that I was in China, I patiently stood behind someone at a respectable distance and waited my turn, only to have five people push their way in front of me (an important thing to understand: this is not considered to be rude and getting offended or upset only makes you look like an ignorant foreigner). What I thought to be a proper, non-personal-space-invading distance from another person was actually enough room for five people to decide that I was probably lost and didn’t actually want to buy anything. I quickly learned that if someone is using something that you need (an ATM, buying something at a cash register, etc.), you have to stand so close, you might as well be standing on that person’s shoes if you want to go next. If you don’t, someone else will invariably squeeze in front of you, pay, and be on their merry way with enough time for another person to squeeze in front of you, pay, and be on their merry way. The theme is not, “After you.” In China, the idea is, “Me first!”
Here in the West, we seem to go to great lengths to avoid touching other people. If you accidentally bump into someone, or even if you pass close enough to someone to penetrate their sphere of personal space without actually touching them, it’s customary to say, “Excuse me,” and move out of their personal space as quickly as possible. If you try this at a metro station in Shanghai, you will either be paralyzed from politely trying not to bump into the ten thousand people around you or you’ll end up saying “Excuse me” so much that you look like a crazy person muttering to yourself (which might work in your favor, because most people tend to move away from crazy people who mutter to themselves). In short, personal space is not a thing in China. You will get bumped and you will get pushed and no one will care because that’s what happens when you’re in one of the most populated cities in the world.
Knowing this, however, does not make it any less unpleasant.