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.

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One thought on “Life In the Bike Lane

  1. Oh, Qi, this so reminds me of my life in Morioka and Kyoto as a student. When I first arrived in Morioka my Japanese family was terrified of letting me ride a bike and ordered a taxi to take me to school. It wasn’t until spring that they relented and allowed me to bike. What freedom! In Kyoto one of my first purchases was a bike. I was on a measly stipend, there were no subways in those days, and buses took forever (and still do – we went back in 2005 as tourists and spent hours getting from one place to another). I felt so a part of my world rolling along two to three bikes deep with students, government workers, and housewives, pulling the lever on my little but urgent-sounding bike bell whenever I saw a traffic crisis in the making. I’m starting to feel homesick for life in Asia just reminiscing. Oh, my. -SueYC

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