Daily Anecdote: Ringing In the 60th

China’s 60th birthday is just two days away. Here in Beijing it feels like the entire city is on spring-cleaning duty. Potted plants in bright greens, reds, and yellows are everywhere – lining sidewalks, stacked onto metal stands to form the shape of pagodas, and arranged according to color to spell out “National Celebration.” Banners bearing upbeat slogans (“Continue striving for ‘xiaokang’ society!“) have been strung over bridges and tunnels. Large structures, be they residential complexes or commercial space, proudly bear China’s “five star red flag.” Everything has to be spic and span when the largest parade in China’s history (1.7 million people are reported to be taking part) rolls onto Chang’an Avenue.

The works don’t end at making the city look its best. Beijing is also making sure everyone is behaving their best. For weeks I puzzled over the groups of middle-aged people sitting on folding stools at street corners. Are they exercise groups? Conversation clubs? Who are these early birds plunking themselves down at busy intersections before the clock even strikes 8 AM?

The mystery was solved on Monday when these rag tag groups showed up uniformly decked out in bright yellow t-shirts painted with the “60” logo. Their red armbands now say “Capital Security Volunteer.” These citizens are “voluntarily” (in truth this is a paid temp job) patrolling street corners to spot suspicious activity that could get in the way of the celebrations. All security personnel in the city – private guards employed by banks, offices, and homes – have also been given this volunteer uniform and instructed to look out for party poopers. In the extensive subway system there’s yet another group of temporary recruits wearing bright blue hats and shirts (emblazoned with “Beijing Volunteer”) and sporting matching fanny packs. Their job is to watch every metro car. With this many people out on surveillance there’s little chance that a group of disgruntled Uighurs or Tibetans or anyone harboring the host of contemporary Chinese discontents can disrupt the festivities.

It wouldn’t be a party if everyone were just being watched. There are fun parts too for the everyman. The government has promoted a whopping sixty patriotic films for release around the October 1 holiday. I’m not talking about black and white propaganda films here. It’s stuff that people actually want to watch! The biggest movie release of the bunch is “The Founding of a Republic”, directed by a group of big ticket filmmakers, including Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. This two-hour movie is a starfest – I counted over forty famous faces making appearances, most of them in cameo roles. The Brad Pitts and Angelina Jolies of Chinese cinema (including HK) are all involved. It’s like “Ocean’s 11” times twenty. You won’t find artistic collaboration to this extent under any other circumstance.

“Founding” tells the epic story of the Chinese civil war and how Mao Zedong and the Communist Party eventually won. Other patriotic movies promoted for the 60th anniversary are themed around espionage and WWII. These also bear long lists of A-list actors and the trailers have the seductive appeal of last year’s “Lust Caution.”

I watched “Founding,” out of a sense of duty to accompany my mother and also because the trailer was poignantly appealing. I have to say I quite enjoyed it – the cinematography was phenomenal (I doubt any other Chinese film has had so generous a budget), the costumes exquisite, and the representation of modern Chinese history was not as biased as I expected. Even the English subtitles were all written correctly, making the film, in theory, internationally distributable. The only gaffe in the movie was the miscasting of two foreign characters – an African American soldier was played by what I can guess to be a Kenyan and John Stuart Leighton (the famous American ambassador) was played by an Australian. (With so many foreigners living in China I would’ve expected more appropriate foreign casting). Small faux pas aside, if this were a purely commercial film it would rank among the “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” types and garner international awards for its arresting visuals.

The biggest downer to the big ole party is the mobility restrictions it has placed on Beijing residents. On the big day, I’m scheduled to set off for a week-long tour of Inner Mongolia and nearby areas, including a few days of camping in the desert. But, like most other travelers, I’m still confused as to whether I can actually get myself to the train station. The government has severely limited private traffic for security concerns and to ensure the logistics of transporting almost two million people to their performing post goes smoothly.

Beijing’s main subway line, the East-West Line 1, will be suspended from midnight on September 30 to midnight the next day. Chang’an Avenue is closed to traffic for the 24-hour period, as are the 2nd and 3rd Ring roads. There are rumors – but no reliable official word – that parts of the 4th Ring road will also be closed. This essentially means citizens can’t get from point to point within the city starting on the eve of the birthday.

Already my commute tonight became onerous. On the way home from work I saw more police cars and starchy navy uniforms than taxis. Forced to take a bus, I found myself squished against other human sardines in a bus spilling over with riders eager to get home before the virtual lock down begins. Gridlock traffic was worse than usual.

I’m nervously awaiting an official announcement on road conditions, but even if this comes out tomorrow there’s always the possibility of the government making last minute changes to make sure its agenda gets carried out first and foremost. Here’s hoping that I won’t celebrate the 60th anniversary of my country’s founding with a backpack strapped to me, trekking 30km across Beijing to get to the train station on time!

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Daily Anecdote: Mom and Pop Recycling

I’m on a budding green streak so I did a little poking and digging into recycling in China. I was always under the impression that Chinese people don’t care about recycling; we’re too busy making our newfound wealth to bother with separating the trash or participating in green fundraisers. Apparently I’m wrong. Recycling in China is a big deal, it just happens in a different way than I’m used to.

My perception that Chinese “don’t care” comes from the fact that I’m accustomed to seeing recycling born out of a moral decision. People living in developed countries choose to rinse out their milk bottles and sort their garbage because they are environmentally conscious. Although this level of green morality is not yet be widespread in China, recycling happens here — and extensively so — as a result of a million small economic decisions. People recycle in developing countries because they can make a living doing it.

The truth is in the numbers. China is one of the world leaders in recycling waste paper, which makes up some 60% of the fiber used to manufacture paper products here. I suspect there are similarly surprising statistics in plastics and glass.

Indeed, everywhere I look I see mom and pop recyclers busily going about their work. On most street corners there are old ladies fishing treasures out of the city garbage cans with tongs. The more vigilant ones follow me around if they see me carrying a half empty bottle of beverage, waiting to snatch it up the minute I dispose of it. I’ve even had people come up to me to ask, “Are you going to finish that?” (This usually leads to my gulping the drink down to save them the trouble of sifting through the bin). Tricycles regularly go through residential neighborhoods, their riders beating drums, singing in loud voices for people to sell their household waste.

Once the reusables are gathered, they are collected via an extensive network of centers. Tricycles zip by every road with their “trunks” piled high with aluminum cans, plastic bottles, or corrugated board. They’re en route to the recycling centers, which seem to have multiplied over the years when I wasn’t watching. If you go by a nondescript warehouse at the right hour you’ll see tricycles lining up to deposit their finds in exchange for cash. The dinky rooms hold monstrously large mountains of recyclable goods.

Whether economic or moral, environmentally-friendly decisions are made on a daily basis here. The government is doing its part to bridge the gap between moral and cash-incentivized green behavior. I’ve already mentioned the “no free plastic bags” policy now in place in China. Public awareness campaigns are also on the rise. On subway cars, an animated frog named Leon lights up the screens and to entertain commuters with cartoon clips about the merits of recycling. On buses, valuable advertising space is taken up with little diagrams about how many trees or barrels of oil can be saved from recycling. I hope that as China makes the transition from developing to developed country our green behavior will evolve seamlessly from cash-based decisions to morality-driven ones.

Being Green: Paper Napkins and Plastic Sporks

I’m not much of an environmentalist. I don’t hug trees, I rarely think about energy efficient light bulbs, and I’ve never used the words “carbon footprint” in a conversation. Yet, in my travels this year, the issue of paper and plastic usage keeps coming to my attention. As my friends and family know well, much of what I do when I travel is eat. Naturally, it is at dining tables that I felt most keenly the big differences in how people around the world consume paper and plastic.

When I left New York for Singapore two years ago, I had grown used to the luxurious (some would say wasteful) usage of disposables in America. Arriving in Singapore, I was at first dismayed to find that most casual eateries (of which there are plenty) in this foodie nation do not provide napkins to diners. This “napkin stinginess” bugged me initially but after living there a while I got used to toting around my own tissue packets. If I happen to forget my pocket tissues, too bad for me, I would have to forego the luxury of wiping my hands clean and would have to wash instead.

Other aspects of Singapore’s paper and plastic conscientiousness grew on me. I started to like seeing foods packaged in strange vessels – drinks poured into small plastic sacs tied at the end; chicken rice and char kway teo wrapped in waxed paper; soup is about the only thing that entitles you to the extravagance of a plastic take-out bowl. The inconveniences of dining without free-flowing napkins and disposable containers melted away into a kind of rustic Asian charm.

Going from Singapore to my “summer home” (more like budget rental) in Paris was an easy switch. Although American tourists complained about the lack of proper take-out equipment, I was happy to carry my baguette out of the bakery with only a small square of pastry paper covering its middle. At the markets, free plastic bags are so small and flimsy that I preferred bringing my own foldable shopping bag. If I had stayed longer I probably would’ve splurged on a panier on wheels, like the ones old ladies use to haul their groceries home. At restaurants, I felt more civilized dabbing my lips with cloth serviettes instead of paper napkins. And I came to appreciate why many restaurants don’t do take-out – why bother stocking up on expensive plastic wares? And what insane diners would prefer eating in the solitude of their cramped apartment instead of in an ambient café? The French paper and plastic stinginess struck me as an accidentally green kind of sophistication.

When I left Europe for a visit back to the US I felt a real culture shock. After learning to live with fewer paper napkins and plastic sporks (and liking it), the sight of a delivery boy on my doorstep holding four lunch tacos in TWO separate paper bags, each double wrapped in a heavy duty plastic bag, weirded me out. What’s with the reinforcement? Do the restaurants think a paper bag by itself would’ve torn under the weight of two tacos carried over five blocks?

Open a take-out bag and you’ll find more confounding excess – three full sets of plastic cutlery (fork, spoon, and knife) for a two-person order, a hefty serving of folded tree (in case the food is delivered to a household devoid of its own towels and tissues).

Elsewhere, juice joints stuff stacks of plush napkins into your hand when you buy a single cup of OJ, perhaps expecting a spill every time. Ziploc bags are bought and discarded without a thought. Durable take-out food containers rarely get a rinse and a reuse. God bless America, a land of abundance, especially when it comes to napkins and sporks.

It was another big switch, the biggest one in fact, to land in Beijing after being in the US. I didn’t read the January 2008 memo that banned shops from handing out free plastic bags to customers. So I was the only sucker paying up big bucks for plastic receptacles for my groceries when everyone else whipped out their reusable cloth shopping bags. When it comes to paper, China is and has always been stingy. If restaurants provide paper napkins they’re usually modest, flimsy squares dispensed one piece (and one ply) at a time. Take-out boxes here aren’t so much boxes as paper envelopes fortified with a little plastic.

The dining and shopping experience in China has quickly evolved into a system of BYOPB (plastic bag), BYOC (container – I’ve seen people bring their kitchen pots to the neighborhood restaurant for take-out), and BYOTP (toilet paper). These inconveniences bother me a little, especially when I’ve forgotten to BMO (bring my own). Yet, on a bigger scale, paper and plastic stinginess actually makes me feel better about the shopping and eating that I do everyday. My purchases may make a hole in my wallet but at least they’re not doing the same to the ozone layer, adding to a landfill, or felling a forest.

Daily Anecdote: Bargaining 101

Inflation and currency appreciation have killed my game. I used to come to China for annual wardrobe updates on the cheap. Now China is so expensive that I’m resorting to the markets for a good deal. (The department stores long ago exceeded my willingness to pay for domestic brands and Shenzhen factory quality). Although I didn’t find what I needed (a fake North Face bag to replace my broken real one) at the right price at Silk Street market, the trip did refresh my memory of just how varied bargaining styles are. Here’s a modest catalogue of bargaining strategies for novices…

The Aggro
Shopkeepers like to wear you down with loud and persistent haggling. After a while I usually figure that my eardrums are worth more than the measly dollars I’m trying to bargain down, so I pay up. But the Aggro bargainer never caves in. He counters the seller’s strategy by being even more unbearable himself. My cousin Evan is an expert Aggro. He’ll plants himself firmly in a stall and shout ludicrous things until the vendor gives him the discount, just to get him out of there. A typical Evan line, “What? 30RMB? For 30 RMB I’ll make one and sell it back to you! 5RMB, that’s all I’m going to pay!”

The Poor Card
The polar opposite to the Aggro, the Poor Card approach is an exercise in solemnity and silence. The buyer remains uncomfortably stoic while the vendor chatters away. He doesn’t engage in the two-way negotiation, he just reiterates a desired price when the seller takes a breather from talking. A classic line is, “But this is all the money I have,” said over and over again. There’s also a Poor Card expert in my family — my mom. Her skillful silence got me a fancy set of bedding (pillow cases, cushions, sheets, the whole shebang) for 300 when the seller asked for 900.

“This Sucks”
This strategy works for people who can bring themselves to shamelessly nitpick. The buyers see something they like, try it on, decide it is a good thing, and then proceeds to disparage it. Disdainful body language is a helpful complement — holding up the item with two fingers, shaking it, screwing up your face to say, “Look at this shoddy stitching” all work. Disdain quickly turns to glee when the seller gives up and hands you that piece of clothing you really didn’t want just half a minute ago.

The Cutesies
This occasionally works for pretty, young girls. You’d have to try the clothes on, look dazzlingly good, prance about the stall attracting other shoppers’ attention, and sweetly ask “Ayi” (auntie) or “Jie” (older sister) to please give you a discount. Shopkeepers are pretty immune to buyers’ tricks, but once in a while they soften to a pleading girl.

The Non-bargaining Bargain
This works surprisingly well for foreigners. Often you see big white men shrugging their shoulders with an “I don’t know what I’m doing” expression, smiling guiltily, tentatively saying “No, no, I can’t pay that much.” These buyers don’t know the rules, don’t know how much things should be, don’t know how to set their price…and it works! They’re blissfully and ignorantly playing the “how low will you go” patience game.

For every buyer bargaining style in the book there’s probably a dozen matching sells. Let’s take a look at how the merchants hold up their end of the bargain.

The Linguists
Walk down any crowded alley way at Silk Street and you’ll see foreign buyers delighted with the shopkeepers’ linguistic dexterity. These guys work hard for their money, learning how to say, “Your wife is beautiful!” and “You’re killing me with your prices” in English, French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, just to name a few. The sight of so many vendors speaking so many languages to lure buyers may be the number one draw at the markets.

The Soft Sell
I learned about this first hand when Geoff and I were separated for a few brief minutes at Silk Street. When I found him again he had three salesgirls on his arms, tugging at his shirt, rubbing his biceps, pulling him into their stall. They don’t do this to couples but any time an unsupervised male shows up the shopkeepers pounce and show them what it means to “sa jiao.” (If you don’t know what this is, ask a friend who has dated a Chinese girl, or wait for a future posting!)

The Flatterers
White lies, even blatant lies, are rampant as sellers stroke buyers’ egos. “This dress could only work on a figure like yours! Bigger girls come by and I don’t even let them try it, I know it won’t fit.” If a piece is too big on you the vendors says, “It’s perfectly breezy for the summer.” If it’s too tight, “You don’t want to wear things loose and dowdy!” If you’re wondering about how a linen skirt will fare when the weather cools, vendors reply, “This is heavy linen, it’ll work well into the fall.” If it’s wool you’re fingering in the summer, they say, “This is good material, it’s seasonless.”

The Poor Card
Just as buyers cry poor, so do sellers. Shopkeepers love to mutter, “I tell you, I’m not making any money on this, I’m giving it to you at cost (or at a loss)!” as they start to wrap up your purchase. Right after a smile appears as he bids you adieu, and you know you might’ve asked for an even lower price.

“This Quality!”
Even though 99.9% of the goods in the big markets are made in shady factories somewhere down south (Dongguan?), that doesn’t stop the sellers from asking a high price for superior quality. Over the years I’ve heard, “This is imported.” “This is export quality.” “This is a famous Italian brand, Goocci.” “That’s a Nordic model, that’s why the sizes run big.” “This (fake) is better than the real thing.”

This last pitch threw me into some trouble at Silk Street this time. I found some North Face copies but balked when the sellers demanded RMB380 (~$55). I blurted, not as a bargaining tactic but out of pure surprise, “But a real North Face costs only $30 on sale at a US outlet.” This really didn’t sit well with the shopkeeper who insisted that his bags were made at the same factory as the real ones, with better materials.

After huffing and puffing at me for a while, the vendor resorted to the last bargaining ploy, The Dismissal. He waved me away with one hand, saying, “If you don’t have money to buy good quality why don’t you just go buy the real one.” This must be one for the ages, a fake goods peddler telling me that the real goods are cheaper!

Daily Anecdote: The Gays, the Comrades

I got to know a little about the gay community in China during my second year at university. One of my best friends from school was an openly gay Chinese man. When I came to Beijing for a summer internship I spent much of my free time hanging out with his large group of successful, confident, irreverent, and gay friends.

Prior to that summer, I hadn’t given serious thought to homosexuality in China. I was raised like most Chinese, happily oblivious to issues surrounding cultural stigmas. Gayness, like incest or serial murder, were things that we assumed only afflicted post-industrial societies, where people developed strange conditions from having too much free time on their hands.

During that summer, almost ten years ago, my first lesson on the gay scene was gay vernacular. Just as homosexuals in the west re-appropriated derogatory terms like “queer” as their own, Chinese gays also developed a tongue-in-cheek lingo. They took to calling themselves “tong zhi” (literally “comrade”). You could be a “nan tong zhi” (gay man) or “nu tong zhi” (lesbian woman), or alternatively, a “lala” (lesbian). You could also label yourself “zhi de” (straight) or “wan de” (“crooked”). I laughed at the secretive glee the gay pioneers must’ve felt when they addressed each other by the very terms of endearment used by a regime that, until 1997, deemed sodomy illegal, and until 2001, registered homosexuality as a mental illness. I, too, felt an illicit joy at being included in this largely underground community of rebels.

Nearly a decade later I’m finding a much more “out” scene in China. In the time I spent away, busily toiling as a corporate slave, China’s 30 million homosexuals have made quiet progress. I was surprised to find that I can pick up a copy of TimeOut and read about gay nightlife in Beijing. I can also now Google search China’s first ever Gay Pride Parade (in Shanghai this June) without running into a firewall. Gay activists and organizers can speak about their ambitions to set up Beijing’s first Pride Parade next year in interviews. I can even watch subtly “gay” programming on cable TV.

It is this last point that shocks me the most. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have imagined China’s tightly controlled broadcast media being remotely gay-friendly. But here I was on a Sunday afternoon watching a TV show with strong homosexual undertones.

I was attempting to bond with my broody teenage cousin who has just moved to Beijing for university, so I subjected myself to the torture of watching a celebrity variety show. Hunan Satellite, one of the more popular entertainment channels, was doing a show featuring Coco Lee, an over-the-hill Chinese American R&B singer. There were the usual vapid segments — Coco’s life secrets, her beauty tricks and favorite foods. Then came the fan segment of the show. The producers had combed the country to find the most fanatical devotees who could sing like Coco, dress like Coco, do Coco’s signature “motor butt” hip-gyrating dance.

It was mind numbing…until the featured fans came on stage. I sat up in alert fascination – they were all men! There was a make-up artist who demonstrated how he transforms his masculine face into an uncanny resemblance to Coco (supposedly even her mom couldn’t tell the difference when shown a photo of the fake Coco). There was a young man who proudly performed the “motor butt” dance. There was even a boy who sang with Coco’s signature voice (think Mariah Carey, but in Chinese). Every minute I was expecting the central censors to cut off the programming. But it didn’t happen. The studio audience kept watching and laughing. I kept wondering how the conservative viewers at home were reacting to this overt display of male femininity.

An hour of TV convinced me that China’s mainstream view towards “comraderie” has indeed changed. We’re not quite at the point of aspirational equality yet, but people have changed enough to tolerate public representations of alternative lifestyles. Later, I learned that the unspoken official stance on homosexuality is the “Triple No” policy – no approval, no disapproval, no promotion. This leaves enough grey area for gay activists to set up support networks, but also murkiness for the government to crack down any time it feels uneasy about gay activities. It seems that with all citizen groups in China the government is happy to keep one eye shut as long as the organizations don’t get too political.

It’s still a long way to social acceptance of homosexuality from here, but at least for now China’s “comrades” and “lala’s” can party it up like never before.

Daily Anecdote: The Elusive Fold

Anyone who is Asian, whether here in China, or in Korea and Japan, or an Asian American or Eurasian living overseas, knows the difference between a monolid and a double lid. If you didn’t grow up in a culture that prizes the elusive eye folds, here is the 101: a double eyelid is a fold of skin that creases over your eye, giving it some depth (and a natural place to put eye shadow). Many Asians aren’t blessed with this piece of non-functional anatomy and have developed “lid obsessed” cultures (and industries) to compensate.

When I was just five years old, aunties and female neighbors were already discussing the condition of my eyelids and what implications they had on my marital prospects. I had monolids when I was little, but they grew into an imbalanced pair in grade school (one mono- and one double lid). In my teenage years my eyelids morphed into a steady state, which my husband now calls the “thousand folds.” Instead of mono- or double lids, I have countless tiny creases on my eyes. It’s a bit of an anomaly, but not too displeasing to the male sex as to cause my female relations further concern.

In earlier days, the only thing people could do about their eyelids was talk. Catchy phrases and rhymes sprang forth from women’s laments and self consolations on the subject of monolids, also connoted with small eyes (another biological “flaw” common to Asians). A popular one is, “Small eyes focus light better. Big eyes disperse light.” As if optics were the primary concern here! Another one that caught on with urbanization and increasing household wealth is, “Small eyes are city chic. Big eyes are for the farms.” Depending on the eyelids of the person you ask, everyone in China seems to have their favorite lid motto.

Over time there came to be things that people could do to change the look of their lids. Cosmetics came into the picture first. I cringe now as I tell the story about my battle with lid-enhancing makeup. Years ago I walked into my senior yearbook photo session with light makeup on my face that I had applied myself. The photographer took one unimpressed look, uttered a “tsk tsk”, and ordered his makeup artist to do some “work” on my eyelids. After an uncomfortable twenty minutes in the chair I turned to see a raccoon staring back at me from the mirror. The “work” done on me was precisely the kind I always avoided – heavy-handed application of brown eye shadow to create depth where little existed and fool viewers into thinking a bigger crease has miraculously grown. I protested but the photo session was already behind schedule and I was forced to smile with raccoon eyes. That year I didn’t ask anyone to sign my yearbook page.

Makeup was but the first step towards eyelid modification. Soon, plastic surgeons had developed techniques for sewing two parts of an eyelid together into an artificial fold. This quickly became the most popular knife procedure for Chinese women. In the beginning, the handiwork wasn’t so great, leaving millions of women marching around town with protruding eyelids. To this day I see women looking unnaturally awake and alert. Knife styles have since improved, but there’s no cure for the perma-puff-lid the surgery pioneers are still sporting.

Nowadays women are more selective about jumping on the next irreversible surgery bandwagon. More sophisticated cosmetic products – not the raccoon brown eye shadow — are a common alternative. As I flipped through a glossy magazine recently, I noted with fascination all the lid enhancing options. There is lid tape, a double-sided adhesive wearers can cut into slim strips and stick onto the eye where a crease should be. This keeps the top part of the lid stuck to the bottom part, creating a double lid…in theory. Often I see oblivious girls, after a night of partying or a particularly sweaty afternoon, with a piece of dangling tape hanging off their fake creases.

There is also lid glue. It’s probably the same stuff as you use to glue on false eyelashes, except it comes with a nifty little spatula. This tool is curved and fits the shape of a convex eye. You push it against your monolid, making a dent where a crease would be had you been so endowed, and insert a trail of glue. This seems to work better than tape and keeps the lids stuck for longer.

Who knows what the beauticians of our lid-obsessed culture will come up with next! I’m happy to report that I’ve never used a cosmetic eyelid enhancer (except under coercion a la the yearbook incident) and have managed to marry myself off. Maybe it’s because I found a foreigner who doesn’t know just what he’s missing with the double lids!

Life In the Bike Lane

Two weeks ago I accepted a part time teaching job at an international school near home. If my old life at an investment bank was life in the fast lane and my four-month honeymoon was life on the beach, this gig is most certainly life in the bike lane, literally and metaphorically.

With this job my days are becoming more structured (seven hours at school, three of which I can spend writing or reading Dr. Seuss as class prep). At the end of a week I get paid some pocket money. Not enough to add much to the bank account but just enough to put a grin on my face and prompt me into buying posh cocktails at “Xiu” on the weekend. This life in the bike lane is, so far, a happy balance.

Becoming a teacher has also put me quite literally ON the bike lane. Before going to the school to meet the principal for the first time (also the first time being in the principal’s office has meant a good thing) I Google mapped the location. The school was only three kilometers northeast of my apartment and, according to Google, a six-minute car ride away.

Not so. It seems our friends at Google haven’t figured out how to factor Beijing’s gridlock traffic into its driving time estimates. I spent twenty-five minutes each way in a taxi and paid enough in fares to set me back one Mojito. There had to be a better way to commute.

The next day I strapped a pack onto my back, thanked mom for the lunch box she prepared, and stepped onto my blue bicycle. It’s a trusty vehicle with a “girl” frame (low crossbar to accommodate dresses and skirts) and a shiny aluminum basket (already misshapen into a trapezoid when the bike fell against a wall). At $30, it’s also a cheap enough vehicle for to ride and park carelessly around Beijing, where bike theft is rampant. I silently thanked the government for paving bike lanes as wide as car lanes all around the city and was ready to go.

Out on the road I quickly discovered that I was, by far, the slowest biker. Senior citizens with gaunt frames and silver hair were whizzing by on their way to taichi practice (or to the “granny meat market perhaps).

I was also the only one who seemed to bother with traffic rules. As soon as my front wheel rolled out of the gates of the peaceful apartment complex, vehicles came at me from six directions. Bikes rolled directly towards me, making me do a double take, wondering if I’m in Singapore and should be on the left side of the road. Cars crossed intersections straight into me while I was on the pedestrian crosswalk on a green light. Motorcycles swerved at diagonal angles into me, without any regard for what color the turning light was.

I soon learned that if I was to survive and reach school I would have to work my way into the middle of a pack of bikers, huddle close, and go where everyone else steers their bikes. Forget about the lights!

Like me, my brand new vehicle was also out of place among the other contraptions on the bike lane. There’s the unremarkable two-wheelers: bikes, mopeds, and those annoying electro-bikes with pedals that whirl uselessly when the motor is on and the rider’s feet are comfortably resting on the floorboard. But even among the bike-like vehicles, a large number are in seriously patchy condition. I saw a man happily pedaling in front of me on a bike that had the main frame of an ancient Flying Pigeon, incongruously shiny aluminum mudguards over the wheels (looking rather home-made), a very sporty blue plastic backseat (ripped off a fancier mountain bike), and a handy basket on the front that looked like it would be happier in the crook of an Italian girl’s arm.

There’s also plenty of mini three-wheelers, basically “pick up trucks” in bike form, on the road. The backs of these three-wheel bikes are usually piled high with recycled bottles, metal scraps, but I also frequently see children sitting in place of goods or a curled up adult having a nap in the back.

I made it to school that day in twenty minutes. Over the last two weeks I’ve been able to do the trip in as little as fifteen minutes when the traffic is good.

The more I use the bike lane the more I realize that it’s just the place for me. I love the freedom of coming and going when I please, without having to hail a taxi or haggle with the “black cab” drivers who hover outside nice apartment buildings waiting to con newly arrived expat. As the weather cools into autumn (Beijing’s most glorious season) I sometimes get to throw a scarf around my neck and feel it trailing in the wind behind me. I don’t even mind jostling for a place in the bike hoard at intersections (making sure to always place myself in the middle among layers of “protection” should a car accidentally plow through) or shouting “Kan che!” (“Watch out, oncoming vehicle”) to anyone veering into my lane.

Some days, when the air is crisp and the sky is blue (Beijing’s smog does clear up occasionally), pedaling on my bike reminds me of school, those happy days at Stanford when my biggest worry was finishing a policy paper on time. But most days, even if it’s muggy and crowded, I feel an exhilarating happiness from being able to conduct myself from place to place independently. Knowing that my journeys to and fro have hardly cost a thing or brought more waste into the world only makes me pedal faster. And so, I’ll keep on biking and see where this latest adventure takes me.