A Phoenix in Beijing Traffic

THE best way to see Beijing is certainly by bicycle. On my second day in the city, my wife, who was born there, my father-in-law, and brother-in-law took me down to the secondhand bicycle shop to pick up what would become my daily mode of transportation. They sighted down my bike, from rear to front wheel, the way a carpenter might a slightly warped 10-foot two-by-four. They shook it to test its strength and rode it around the shop. To take it outside required a deposit worth the full value of the bike.

The merits and problems of the bicycle were discussed at length in Chinese, which mostly went over my head. As an American whose very presence grossly inflated the cost of anything I wanted to buy, I felt for the first time the passivity I would experience again and again when I was involved in any Chinese business transaction. The bike was ostensibly for my father-in-law or brother-in-law and not for me. This was probably for the best, as it had been 11 years since my senior year in college when I last owned a bicycle.

My wife's family, and the Chinese in general, know a great deal about making bicycles (and cars and many other things) last beyond the wildest expectations of Americans. The bikes in this shop ranged from decrepit to practically new, some missing wheels, seats, chains, most still spattered with mud. Almost without exception the men's bikes were black, the women's blue, black, or red.

Most sported fanciful names - Phoenix, Flying Pigeon, Golden Lion, Forever. It must take a romantic attitude on the part of Chinese bicycle manufacturers - or the desire to create one - to half-believe in the powers behind such names. It is, after all, no small thing to be riding one's Forever three or four times a day. We give, of course, similar names to cars in the West (Nova, Jaguar, Stingray).

I think that men especially exaggerate affection for their vehicles, all the more so if they are reliable. In 19th-century America, there was probably a similar tendency to imaginatively inflate the powers of one's horse. I am, however, not sure how the average Chinese man actually regards his bicycle. Bicycles are so common in Beijing that many Chinese probably take them for granted.

The bike we were considering was at the lower end of the spectrum. The handful of onlookers who gathered to watch or advise my wife's family offered last pieces of wisdom as it became apparent we were settling on a Phoenix. This was my first taste of the Chinese tendency to hold a conference with any available family members or bystanders whenever a decision was to be made. My father-in-law alone was poker-faced and consulted only with my brother-in-law, Jing Hui. One man outside the shop seemed almost h ysterically upset with our choice and shouted angrily through the open door. I learned later that he was not at all angry, but simply wanted us to buy his bike. He offered a slightly lower price than the one we were planning to pay the shop. My father-in-law ignored him, while my wife and he exchanged a few words.

Finally we paid 186 yuan for the bicycle, around $37. The bike, a single-speed with hand brakes like most Chinese bikes, then went through an official inspection, similar to the inspection for cars in the United States. When Jing Hui had repaired the brakes, and when we bought a lock and demonstrated that the bell did in fact still work, we were given the title. To avoid complications, we put it in my wife's name.

I later registered the bike at the People's University, where I was teaching for the year as a Fulbright lecturer in American literature. I felt as if I had purchased a new car. As I was a novice at bike riding in Beijing, my father-in-law wouldn't allow me to ride the bike home. Jing Hui had that honor, and we took the bus back to meet him at the university.

On the bicycle paths, one encounters not only two-wheelers but hand carts and truck-like tricycles with wooden platforms behind them. The tricycles are among the more interesting vehicles in China, and owning one is somewhat akin to owning a pickup truck. I have seen old men straining to pedal them with refrigerators on the back, or with swaying six-foot stacks of cardboard, wood, or newspapers. As these loads often don't appear to be too stable, and as the tricycles are difficult to stop, I was sure to give them a wide berth.

There are also regular cars, buses, trucks, and horse-drawn flatbed wagons to look out for, because the bicycle paths often disappear for long stretches, and one is forced to ride on the side of the road. After 7 p.m., when it becomes illegal to ride double, wives and girlfriends sit sidesaddle on the back wheel racks, one arm cupped around the bellies of their men.

In the first few weeks after my arrival, my father-in-law took pains to remind me of the skills he felt I needed to minimize the risk of riding in Beijing. One great difference between bike riding in the United States and in Beijing is that in China the pace is much slower. During my Fulbright orientation at the American Embassy, one embassy official attributed this moderate pace to the fact that the people had no real incentive to get anywhere fast. At work, this official claimed, most people were under employed, their offices overstaffed. To minimize unemployment, four people were hired to do the work of one.

At a restaurant catering to foreigners, I was initially surprised by one example of this underemployment. An attendant followed me to the bathroom, waited until I was finished, then adjusted the temperature of the tap water and offered to wipe my hands with a towel. Tipping (in theory) was not allowed.

But my father-in-law had a different reason for slowing me down whenever I pushed too far ahead of him. Beijing is very dusty, and riding too fast simply kicked up too much dirt. This was especially true in the rain, when large sections of the bicycle paths would be layered with mud.

Fast riding not only required a more extensive cleaning of the pedals and chain guard, but would dirty any goods strapped to the back of the bike. It was also dangerous in the thick Beijing bicycle traffic, when pedestrians darted out into the bike path, and bicyclists, for reasons I never understood, sometimes rode against the flow.

Safe riding in Beijing is diametrically opposed to safe biking in the US. My father-in-law criticized my tendency to look over my shoulder before turning to be sure no bicyclist was coming up fast behind me. Doing so made the bike swerve slightly, which could prove disastrous on a packed bicycle lane. The trick is to ease in the direction you want to turn, and simply assume you have the right of way. A backward glance establishing eye contact was taken as a sign of acquiescence. Looking back meant yieldi ng the right of way.

Riding my Phoenix in Beijing produced in me a false sense of independence. At every major intersection, the sharp martial gestures of meticulously uniformed policemen punctuated the flow of traffic, a grim reminder of June, 1989 and the iron fist behind the near chaos of a Beijing rush hour.

This illusory sense of freedom was in large part a product of my difficulty with the language and with city-bus travel. My broken Chinese usually was not up to the task of making my destination clear on a loud and unbearably crowded bus. By bicycle, I could keep my own counsel and follow my tourist's map of the city.

I am at least wise enough to suspect my initial impressions of a country as vast and harshly opaque as China. But bicycling in Beijing revealed to me a little of the essence of that ancient country; I like to think it helped me ask some of the relevant questions. My wife and I regularly rode our bikes to visit her family. We rode an hour across town to pick up our mail at the American Express Customer Service office. We pedaled to the Beijing Zoo, to the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, the American Embassy, and to the Friendship Hotel where we regularly ate dinner with American friends teaching at other Chinese universities.

Almost every day my wife and I shopped by bicycle, strapped our more stable groceries to the miniature luggage racks on top of our back wheels, and packed bottles, eggs, and other breakables in our bike baskets. If we felt free, it was probably only because we were buoyed by our American passports, or because the bicycles recalled for me something of my childhood. But in my better moments, I like to believe that cycling gave me some small entrance into Beijing. Even as a Westerner, I achieved on my bike a degree of anonymity, at one with the vast and flightless throng of Forevers, Phoenixes, and Flying Pigeons.

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