Five People You Meet On Chinatown Buses


Over the past four years I’ve regularly taken Fung Wah or Lucky Star, the so-called Chinatown bus lines, between Boston and New York and occasionally D.C. and New York. At $15 a ride, these traveling institutions attract all walks of life, and although it’s ridiculous to lump people into categories, these buses are ridiculous in and of themselves. From fires to rollovers, their four-hour rides can be quite the adventure. Here are five people you can expect to find aboard…

The Talker

Talkers are the low-lifes of Chinatown bus society. They can and will spend the majority of the ride talking on their cells with friends, family, and everyone in between at a volume never deemed socially acceptable. Hot topics often include how much money they spent the previous evening (it’s a lot), how much their friends who moved to New York have changed for the worse, and how hungover they are. You’re amazed by the longevity of their phones’ battery life. They have especially loud and rude conversations with their mothers just as you manage to fall asleep. You hope they’re the first to go if the bus ever rolls over on I-95.

The Eater

Rather than packing their bags with clothing and toiletries, eaters fill them with six course meals where each dish is meticulously sealed in Tupperware and wrapped in multiple plastic bags. Consequentially, they slowly slurp, crunch, and nibble their way through the entirety of the ride. You learn of their presence first by smell as they’re always the first onboard to find the most remote seat. At the rest stop they buy a Big Mac. You seek them out when you go to the bathroom at the back of the bus and are further disgusted when you see that they’re unnaturally thin.

The Traveler

With their oversized backpacks, waterproof capris, and sneaker-sandal hybrids, the traveler is perhaps the most immediately identifiable type of passenger. Usually foreign in origin, this single bus trip is one of many they will be taking as they criss-cross the globe. Excited by the prospect of making a new worldly friend, you work up the courage to practice your high school level French with them. Unimpressed, they explain to you that they’re Dutch and promptly return to reading their existentialist literature. This is your first and only interaction with them.

The Technocrat

The technocrat type can only manage surviving the four-hour-plus ride if wrapped in a digital comfort cocoon. Somehow they always sit directly in front of you, which can be helpful when they proceed to watch two or three movies on Netflix. However, their taste in film is almost as bad as the pop music that mercilessly pours out of their headphones, both of which matter little as they spend most of their time texting on their iPhones. The technocrat is ultimately a harmless breed, but their number appears to grow with each time you ride.

The Conversationalist

Regardless of whether they are sitting across the aisle from you or on the other end of the bus, conversationalists strive to make instant but impressive connections with everyone they meet. They roll their eyes at something the talker said, and instantly you’re under their spell. You casually ask them what they’re reading, and move along to studies, life aspirations, etc. Their responses are simple and magical. After the rest stop, you smoothly change seats in order to sit next to them and get down to serious matters: fears, doubts, and unrealized passions. They listen intently and you imagine marrying them and raising a family on this bus forever and ever. When the fluorescent lights flicker on as the bus rolls into the terminal, you consider exchanging emails but always chicken out because deep down you know that these people can only be truly appreciated in this traveling context. They’re the Chinatown bus gods’ smiling reward for your dedicated patronage.

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image – Elvert Barnes