The insanity that can be Beijing traffic (“Why is that car driving toward me — on the sidewalk?”) can lead to forgetting that there are individuals with individual lives and individual stories in fact at the wheel. And not everyone is the same.
The other day after what may have been yet another day filled with frustrations at school, I was riding home, and, as is my way, I joined the probability field, arrived safely on the far side of a particularly probabilistic traffic circle, said a quiet prayer of thanksgiving and headed toward my apartment.
Now, it may be said that Beijing drivers will situate their cars so as to cause the most disruption in the least amount of space. This may have to do with “saving face”: I don’t care if neither of us can move, I am not going to get out of the way. As I began peddling down this side / access road, I saw such a situation developing. I should add that here I was doing what one is taught not to do in the States, ride against traffic. Then again, here in Beijing “wrong way” is a very fluid concept. After all, the laws of motion generally do not dictate that particles move in a “right way” and a “wrong way.” And, in the philosophic / scientific materialism that now seems to be the prevailing ethic here in China, a car is but a big particle of physics. Why should it, a person or a bicycle not go any direction a subatomic particle can go at any given place in time? Yes, collisions happen, but why quibble.
Anyhow, back to what could have been yet another traffic tie up due to car placement.
I was driving toward 2 or 3 cars on this narrow stretch of roadway. The car I was most concerned with could have placed itself in such a way that it could not go forward, while at the same time not permitting me to ride carefully past. Instead, the driver stopped, providing me enough space to ride through, and indeed kindly waved at me to proceed. In two years here in Beijing, this was a first for me on the receiving end. When I on my bicycle make clear by hand signals that I am giving a car — a much larger physics particle — the right of way, I am most always met with looks of delight combined with confusion. There’s a metaphor here somewhere.
Only yesterday, 27 May, and, yes, after another frustrating day at school, with students being “sick” in record numbers due to SAT preparation, and parents reinforcing the lie that their child is sick, etc., I was again riding home. Even though the air quality was the standard “unhealthy,” I had opted not to wear my somewhat hi-tech and somewhat expensive face mask. Instead, I placed it on top of my jacket, which was inside a bag, which was inside the wire basket on the front of my bike, which is now fastened to the bicycle by string. I do not jest.
Because of this somewhat fragile relationship of physics particles of various sizes and shapes, unbeknownst to me, and in my distracted state, said face mask bounded out of this bag and onto the street without my noticing it.
Sometime after this, a gentleman on a bicycle came riding up beside me and began talking at me. In Chinese. Already a problem. I had no idea what he was trying to say. Had I cut him off? Had a violated the probability field? I simply wanted to be left alone to my thoughts. Still later on he flew up beside me and signaled to me something. I muttered the one phrase I am confident in Chinese, “I don’t know.” He chuckled and rode off.
It was only moments later that I realized that this stranger had been trying to communicate to me that something had fallen from my bicycle, my face mask, and was trying to get me to stop and turn around to retrieve it, but my ignorance of language had gotten in the way. When at last I did turn around, saying quiet words of thanks for this man’s attempts to help me, I could not find this article. My hope, of course, is that someone found it, knows where to find new filters, and will put it to good use.
I rode on my way, purchased another mask at my nearby health-food store, and so contributed to the Chinese economy.