Biking Home

Either our sour mood was getting to Gauss and he had bugged the Foreign Affairs Office until they caved, or Jiaotong University was feeling magnanimous—everyone enjoyed a week off for the national holiday—but for some reason, David Liu appeared one morning with our salaries. The university termed it an “advance” although we’d been working for over a month already.

Just as important, David presented Gauss with the documents that allowed us to buy items at the Friendship Store. If they happened to be in stock, I could finally buy bicycles!

Gauss had some work to do in the afternoon, so I was in charge of making the purchase. Toshio, a professor from Japan who had come for a short stay at Jiaotong University, was given use of the car for a day. He let me ride with him to the Friendship Store. Being in Xi’an for only a few weeks, Toshio often did little favors to make life more comfortable for those of us committed to spending the year.

I was ecstatic to discover that a new shipment of bikes had arrived that week. Toshio and I spun the pedals, admired the shiny fenders, and bounced on the seats before picking two identical black Flying Pigeon brand one-speeds. The bikes were chunky and utilitarian, designed for years of hard use. Heavy metal rods, not cables, connected the brake levers to the wheels. Unlike the lean, alloy wheels of American bikes, these had weighty steel rims designed to withstand the city’s rutted roads.

We spent at least half an hour waiting and shuffling around as the clerks checked my documents, counted and recounted the money, and wrote and rewrote sales slips. Everything had to be in triplicate, and the worn sheets of carbon paper left only faint marks that had to be retraced.

The bikes weren’t sold ready to ride. All the nuts and bolts needed to be tightened and there was no air in the tires. We took the bikes outside to the waiting car. A crowd gathered, chuckling and pointing as Toshio, the driver, and I attempted to put the bikes in the trunk.

Most families had only one creaky, beaten-up bicycle for four people, and they had to wait years to get the industrial-goods ration coupon needed to buy a new one. Two brand-new bikes represented wealth, but more importantly, enviable connections—guanxi— that allowed me to jump the queue. Witnessing this was an event, something the neighborhood people could gossip about for several days hence.

Toshio had another errand to run with the car, so I decided to walk back, guiding a bike with each hand. As I strode along with what felt like my freedom in each hand, curious people gaped at me from all directions. My conspicuousness pained me, but I kept telling myself to put up with it, keep my eyes ahead and keep walking—eventually I’d be home. To be this noticeable at in the U.S., I would have had to be driving a brand new red BMW at parade speed through a poor neighborhood. I longed to escape—but where would I go?

About a mile into my walk, a middle-aged gentleman rode up to me and asked, in very good English, “Did you just buy them?” Like everyone else, he wore a dark blue “Mao” jacket, baggy trousers, and black cotton shoes, but he had a worldly bearing. His confidence in approaching me and speaking was exceptional. He walked with me for a few minutes, making simple, pleasant conversation, (“Where do you work?” and “Xi’an is a very interesting city!”) until he had to turn off in another direction.

“Thank you for walking with me,” I said before he turned away, “It was nice talking with you.”

I was grateful to him for making me feel like a normal human being.

I resumed walking alone, resigned to the stares. My feelings of isolation were so profound that I failed to see the humor in the near-accidents as rubbernecking cyclists narrowly missed each other or sideswiped donkey carts and utility poles. Instead, my cheeks burned as I plodded forward. But then I heard a horn honk, and behind me was Toshio in the car.

The driver pulled to the side of the road and Toshio hopped out, offering to walk the remaining distance with me. What a relief to no longer be doing this alone! And a moment later, Oliver, one of my students, happened by on his bicycle. Oliver guided us to a sidewalk bike repairman who—for less than a yuan—pumped up the tires and tightened the hardware. The driver helped, and again a large crowd gathered, but it was different: this time I was with friends. The driver smiled as he pumped, and the bike repairman grinned. A Japanese man, an American woman, and new bikes fresh from the shop was a rare trifecta in Xi’an, more novelty than many people saw all year—and he was at the center of it. Once the bikes were road worthy, the driver took the car back to the university and the three of us, Toshio, Oliver and I, rode home. Accompanied by friends, it felt like home.