May 28th, 2011
It took me over a year to build up the courage to buy a bike. Riding a bike in China is a spiritual practice. It requires upmost attention and you really have to let go of your sense of control. Traffic is insane. Motorcycles drive in the opposite direction down the street, buses blast in and out of the bike lanes and vendors, pedestrians, strollers, car doors opening, all provide shocks that come out of nowhere. When you ride a bike in China you have to abandon your sense of power and just flow with the intricate choreography of the traffic. You are just one of the multitudes in the background and nothing is personal.
But I really wanted a bicycle because for me it is so tied to nostalgia. My dad and I used to go on bike trips together on a pair of pink bicycles we lovingly called our “freedom machines.”
Living in China has really made me appreciate my father so much more. I brag about him constantly to my class. Mainstream Chinese culture is extremely money focused. And though it is easy to judge, I have to realize that in a country with no social safety network and a large aversion to risk, money is THE status symbol. It is a big status symbol in the west as well, but way more so here in China. People love to buy designer labels; and appearing to be wealthy is very important to 面子， “face”.
I yearn for a time and a place where people cared about something more than just money. And since many Chinese look up to the West for their opulence, I love to tell them stories of the main man in my life, who never strove for wealth and in fact never seemed to value it at all – my father.
My dad would ride one of the set of pink bicycles to work every morning, when the weather was nice. He got the twin bicycles in a yard sale for twenty bucks and was always exceedingly proud of his purchase. I tell my students about the wisdom of my father. Why drive a car, you will have to pay for gas and gym fees, when you can get all of that and more in a bicycle. If everyone were like my father, climate change wouldn’t be a problem; but then again, maybe we would have to worry about technological stagnation. Either way, my dad is one of a kind.
So bicycles for me are always inextricably linked to memories on those bike rides with my father and the wisdom he gave me. Wisdom my friends now attribute to me. They say I am the least materially driven person they know and I tell them “you’ve never met my father not to mention my grandmother.”
Whenever I buy something the least bit expensive I always keep a tally of the number of times I have used it in order to determine whether or not I got my money’s worth and if I used it enough to justify the cost. The majority of my wardrobe is pieces that various friends gave to me because they no longer liked them or because they moved away. So a lot of my clothes are ill fitting or not really suitable. One day, my friend Shanshan, who always tells it as it is, told me she didn’t like a sweater I was wearing. I told her frankly, “me neither, it’s ugly, I’ve never liked it.” She looked at me confused and said, “it makes you look like a grandma, why do you wear it?” And I replied, “Because I have it.” The sweater, like much of the stuff I own, was left behind when one of my friends left the country, and even though I’ve always hated it, I’ve worn it because I didn’t want to buy another sweater. Why buy a sweater when you already have one?
But I will drop money without hesitation to go traveling or eat at a restaurant. It’s just things that I’ve never seen as worthwhile.
So when I bought a bicycle in China, it was a complicated decision. On the one hand, buying a bike would help the environment, because sometimes when I didn’t want to take the bus, I would take taxis or motorcycle taxis to work and that produced waste. But on the other hand, I don’t like things. And even though the particular bike I was going to buy was second hand and cost about 30$, I was determined to keep a careful tally of the number of times I used it to be sure I got my money’s worth.
(I wonder what normal people are thinking about as I keep these tallies in my mind.)
And today, I thought about that when I woke up. I had used my bicycle ten times, making it 15 Yuan per use. I had to use it more and bring down the cost. And so, even though the weather looked a bit like rain and the front tire needed a bit of air, I rode it to work. And then, after class with my favourite student, where we discussed Marxism and the class struggle, I went outside, and it was gone.
A bunch of emotions went through my mind. At first it was confusion, I wondered where my bike had gone. Then after I told the nearby maxis, (a group of middle ages men with tanned skin and pot bellies, that stand on the corner of the street and try to sell rides on their motorcycle taxies, maxis) a large group started discussing the bike. What colour was it? Where had I left it? Had I locked it? Had anyone seen anything? And suddenly the feeling changed. I was touched that all these strangers cared so deeply about finding out who had taken my bike. They all felt a part of the injustice and it was really sweet. But, there was still a part of me that felt mad, I was an obvious victim, poor me. And then as I rode the bus home, I told the lady on the bus beside me the story, another feeling came to my mind. Relief. Now I no longer had to keep a tally on the bike. In China, that bike would be sold and resold dozens of times and I’d never have to worry that it wasn’t used enough. Also I wouldn’t have to ride home on a flat tire worrying about the traffic. With just one month left, the tally on that bike was looming over my head. I somehow had to bring it’s price down to 4 yuan a ride (the price of the bus.)