Archive for July, 2011

Bicycle theft

July 16, 2011


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.)


Improv is a spiritual practice

July 16, 2011

May 4th, 2011


Yesterday my friends and I went to a quiet pub down the street to hang out. My friend group in Wuhan has retracted and solidified and so I almost always hang out with the same people. The group of us Josh, Marlene and Shanshan, were playing a game. Each of us would have one turn to ask the group a question and then everyone would take turns answering. My question was about your earliest childhood memory. I’d read that this is a question therapists ask to try and see their patients world view, childhood is often where that view is formed and this memory can help a therapist try to see the lens that the patient is using to filter the world.

My memory was not of my parents, (sorry mom and dad), nor my brothers (sorry guys) but my friend Ashley. She was my neighbour when I was four years old. And I remember sitting in her room looking through her dolls trying to find one to take home. The day before, I had given Ashley a very expensive doll that my grandmother had given me for Christmas. It was Ashley’s birthday and so I needed to give her a present. My mom was I think a bit surprised that I had chosen that gift, I did it without her knowing, and she thought I might regret it. So she asked Ashley’s mom if I could have it back, but I didn’t want it back. So instead, I was allowed to choose one of Ashley’s dolls to take home. I remember fingering the doll I had chosen’s face and playing with her woollen hair. She was an Asian style doll with mock silk clothing and straight black horizontal stitches as eyes. I loved her. But I also remember being angry with Ashley. I had asked her if she loved my present the best and she said that she loved all her presents the same. I had given her an expensive doll but the girl down the street had only given her a few drawings. I felt gypped and jealous and only then did I regret the gift.

The next question was “what is your proudest moment”. My friend Marlene didn’t hesitate. It was the moment when she found out that her scientific paper had been published and she was sent to San Francisco to present her findings. Josh took a bit longer but finally said it was when he had been made editor for his school’s newspaper. Then it was Shanshan’s turn.

Shanshan works as an editor for a in-flight magazine in Shanghai. She’s young and fashionable, lives downtown and has free thinking parents that support her in her decisions. As a Chinese girl, she’s made it; she’s one of the lucky ones. But you’d be hard pressed to get her to see it that way. Shanshan hates China. She hates it with a passion. In fact, she often refers to the country as “all of this shit.” She thinks of herself as Western and takes pride in telling stories of the people who confused her for a foreigner.

Shanshan confessed her proudest moment was her graduation from university in the UK where she was the only Chinese person studying her major. She had made it, but since then she said she’s struggled to find that feeling again.

Then it was my turn and though I had the most time to think about it, nothing came to mind. Why was it that when I was trying to think about my successes, all I could think of were the failures that accompanied them? Let me see, was it when I had gotten a lead role in a play at university, no because I messed up my lines and broke character. Was it being selected for French for the Future? No, because I had made so many mistakes in French and never really belonged in Quebec and then of course there was that terrible fiasco with my French teacher in university.

I felt like I hadn’t accomplished anything; I hadn’t done anything really great or even that good and if I had well it wasn’t enough. I stumbled and said I couldn’t think of anything and that it was much easier to see in all the ways I had failed. And then, I saw my friends start to take back what they had said. They said that maybe they weren’t exactly proud and that it wasn’t that great an achievement. And that made me feel even worse. Not only could I not think of a very proud moment in my own life, but my doubt rubbed off on my friends and made them doubt themselves too.

It’s only now that I see the connection between my childhood memory and my lack of a proudest moment. Many of the things I have done in my life have been a means to an end and that end is acknowledgement by others. And those are the things I connect most closely to the failures in my life. You can never get enough acknowledgement. There’s always a critic. And more than that, most people are so busy hoping you acknowledge them to worry about acknowledging you. And the rare times you do get acknowledged something in your brain stops that feeling from truly sinking in. We are taught to be modest and not believe the best about ourselves.  But I like Eckhart Tolle’s theory. The ego is a powerful force and my ego says I am a failure. It’s a great story and she’s sticking to it.

Ironically, (because it is a usually thought as a performance art) improv is one of the few things I did out of true love with no desire to be acknowledged for it at all. In fact, in university, my favourite part of improv was the practices and I seldom participated in the competitions or shows. Improv was always about love of the art for me and the audience just got in the way. But I safeguarded that love, and protected it from being destroyed by not pursuing a career in improv (though it isn’t as if opportunities exactly abound) and somehow keeping it something I did for myself, when I wanted, and having nothing to do with others.

Improv allows me to be present. The ego is silenced and it’s all about living in that moment. The greatest improvisers work with their environment and off their co-improvisers flawlessly; they are truly alive. You don’t live off a script, you can’t plan ahead. You don’t know what’s coming. And that feeling is thrilling.

If only I could do that in life. Why can’t I see life as improvisation? That’s what it is after all. It’s one big long-form sketch. But instead I am tuned out, living in the past, thinking about sketches that didn’t go as planned (as if improv were meant to follow a plan), and not connecting with what is here in the now. Forgetting the beauty and passion of the moment!