Thursday, December 29, 2011

Culture Corner: The Chinese Bicycle

As in a lot of other countries of the world (not America), China relies on the bicycle. Of the eclectic mix of wheeled vehicles I see on an everyday basis, the bicycle dominates.  Almost all seem to be antiques, kept just roadworthy enough to avoid disintegration by Nanjing's third most popular form of employment: the bicycle repairman. (Maybe someday I'll write about number one, though it's pretty boring.)

These repairmen (it's always a man) have a good life, I think, though they don't earn much money. Each day they go to their repair shops (otherwise known as a sidewalk) and sit and wait the day out with their collection of grimy, bent tools, hand pump, and bowl of water (to find holes in tire tubes, of course). They wait for someone to break down in front of them, because if they break down ten feet further there will surely be another repairman at that spot, waiting to snap up the business. And as there is a great deal of people who rely on the bicycle for business purposes, I'm convinced these men single handedly keep the economy of China afloat.

The bicycle as a business tool, you question? Certainly. For example, if you combine the idea of bicycle with, say... cabbage, you have a vegetable market. Add bicycle to propane burner and you have restaurant. And if you combine all three - bicycle, cabbage, and propane burner - you get laxative factory. You get the picture. Sometimes I think the world has turned upside down when I see the variety of way in which people put the bicycle to use. In previous emails I've made mention of the things I've seen transported on bicycles.  In no particular order, here are a few more: ten blue water cooler bottles (full), a chicken coop the size of a Kenmore refrigerator (also full), five propane tanks full of propane (I assume full), pieces of PVC pipe over five meters in length (about fifteen feet for the metric impaired), towers of fruit boxes and newspapers, and two desktop computers complete with mouse pads.  But, the single greatest thing I've seen yet is surely this (Westerners take note as you will no longer need heavy moving equipment): a bed.  It was mattress AND boxspring, impossibly attached to a bicycle, going down the street. I had to look twice to make sure Tom and Jerry weren't pedaling. It is also worth noting that I've seen fourteen Chinese people riding one bicycle.  But it was in a circus. That doesn't quite count.

Along with squealing brakes, wheels scraping rusty fenders, and even rustier chains rolling over rusty gears, the standard Chinese bicycle also has a wire basket in front and rack behind the seat (both rusty). If not occupied by various and sundry paraphernalia, there will surely be someone sitting on this rack - children, the elderly, men in business suits, everybody rides. (Though I have never seen money exchanged, maybe the combination of bicycle and rack equals taxi?) And if it is a girl sitting there, she's guaranteed to be riding side-saddle like an Elizabethan lady. Seeming romantic for boys and girls, I like this passenger aspect of the bicycle.

There is another aspect of the Chinese bicycle that is also interesting.  Not so much based on its use, rather how it is ridden. No matter the need or circumstance, the Chinese person simply refuses to stand while riding. So, rather than standing to pedal to get that little extra bit of power going up a hill, the Chinese instead hunch and strain. (Hunch and Strain sounds like a good name for the laxative factory. SORRY!!!)  And as a result, I have seen old men shouting at people to get out of the way as they stagger and weave backwards downhill trying to keep their heavily loaded bicycle upright - a bicycle that would have made it over the incline were they only willing to stand and pedal. Thinking there to be a logical explanation, I asked my students about this.  But I received only the echoing answer of "Chinese culture" in return. Any ideas? 

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