Thursday, April 2, 2009

Humiliation:The Price of Practice

Biking is the cheapest and most widely used mode of transportation here in Tianjin. At any given time of the day or night, hundreds of bicyclists can be seen weaving in and out of traffic, making their way toward the workplace or home. We are lucky to have bicycle lanes, although no one actually believe that these lanes are reserved solely for bicyclist. Cars, pedestrians, and even buses sometimes use these lanes to get ahead of traffic. During rush hour it can be a harrowing experience riding shoulder to shoulder with some who are within inches of you and others who insist on riding the wrong way against the bike traffic. At first I was quite nervous about how to negotiate the flow of traffic in general, because there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it- but the longer I ride the more I can see that it isn’t really random at all.

Bikes are considered the same as other vehicles and bikers are expected to follow the same rules as cars…although much of the time cars don’t even follow what we would consider typical “rules of the road” like staying in your lane, following traffic lights and giving the right of way to pedestrians. The biker can be in the road or in the bike lane- it doesn’t matter. The same goes for drivers of cars- use whichever lane is most convenient. Bikers riding against the traffic always hug the inside curb. People ahead of you always have the right of way and if you don’t make eye contact with a potential crash victim and just keep pedaling, they will generally give you latitude to go before them. It really helps that the traffic is usually slow moving and as long as bicyclists don’t make any sudden moves, it gives others a chance to make adjustments quite smoothly and easily.

I normally ride my bike everywhere, and not being much of a biker in the States, this has been a whole new experience for me. Unfortunately I have had a string of misfortunes lately. I have had 4 flat tire fixes, 2 basket repairs, a broken chain, brake handle and pedal replaced. Finally, I had to put an entirely new back tire on when it blew out on me during a ride home from a friend’s place late one night.

Fortunately, there are tons of bicycle repair people everywhere. With as many bikes as there are on the road, there have to be people to provide service for everything that can go wrong. Now while this all might seem like a constant headache and very annoying (which it is) I consider it fabulous language practice as well.

I never realized how much vocabulary I was going to have to learn when I came to China- especially words that I didn’t think were going to be important on a weekly basis such as “put air in my tires, bicycle chain, missing sprockets, broken, flat, loose, or damaged.” The other day before I had to replace my wheel, I could hear that the wheel was rubbing against the fender, but I couldn’t see where. Because I didn’t know the words to say, all I could do was take the bike to the repair guy on the corners, point to the wheel, spin my arm round and round in a circle and make a funny “whir whir-whirrr-ing” noise! Hahaha! It was hysterical! Well, he got the point and fixed it for nothing. I guess he felt sorry for me and besides he got a good laugh from the silly foreigner.

Now when I ride by the bike repair couple on the corner near me, they wave to me and know that I will be back to see them the next time my bike has an issue. This is all part of building relationships, being part of the community, and doing “as the Romans do.” True-it is now an official fact that I have spent more on bicycle repairs than I spent on the bike,
But considering that I only spent $6 for this used bike in the first place, $16 is still a pretty small price to pay for admission into a rich arena for language practice!