I have been to two Asian countries, 3 weeks in each–Japan in 2013, and our just completed visit to India. Two crowded countries of mega-cities, each with population issues, commute issues, vast investments in infrastructure.
With my n=2, I will now make some only very lightly-informed pronouncements and over-generalizations on societal coping strategies in crowded urban settings.
In Japan you can almost physically feel the stress, especially in the subways and, oddly, in elevators. Japanese are very polite, very contained, very regimented. They rush through train stations without eye contact. They are impeccably dressed. Everything in the commercial world we encountered was hyper-organized: lines of bowing clerks at opening time in department stores, perfectly timed trains, over-engineered public bathrooms (including the option of having music or sound effects play so no one is disturbed by the sound of your peeing). Yes, of course there are messy edges, but in general it seems to the traveler that everything works. 99% of the restaurants have plastic food displays, so you know EXACTLY what you are getting–an example of a regimented, organized, planned-in-advance way of doing things. Stray animals? Other than the wild deer, none. Dogs running along the street? Never. Though in Tokyo you can see a lot of the quirky teenage fashionistas and costumers out and about, for the most part the homogeneity is striking. The obsession with cleanliness is delightful as a traveler–I could walk all day, and did, in Tokyo in hot steamy weather in sandals, and come back to the hotel with clean feet. Private life–it’s invisible.
In India, everyone is just as, probably more, crowded, but everyone lives life in the open. Bathing. Changing clothes. Men getting shaved, or shoes getting repaired, or clothes being ironed–it’s all on the street. Homogeneous? Not even close. Every variety of sub-continent apparel and manner is available. Colorful is an insufficient adjective. Animals everywhere. Broken sidewalks, people and dogs and beggars and cows and goats, wandering in and out of traffic, on and off the pavement, groups of people standing around everywhere eating, talking, hollering–your impression is that nothing is hidden, life is an open, communal, shared experience. People clothe stray dogs. People feed the cows by tossing fresh greens on the sidewalks in the afternoon. People throw bananas to the wild monkeys. And messy around the edges? India is profoundly messy in so many ways.
When we returned from 3 weeks in Japan, we walked into our house and decided it needed some upgrading–and began planning a major remodeling project. We laughed–compared to the cleanliness of Japan, our life looked a bit shabby.
When we returned from India it felt as if we were entering a surrealistically quiet, peaceful, clean, organized, and maybe a bit dull, world.