Yup. I’m the fish. Out of my element. And China is a nation of bicycles. They are everywhere–rickety and rusty and forlorn looking. Weaving between buses, cars, people and more bikes–they are the old workhorses in new cities and rural outposts. A shiny new bike will be stolen in short order, so dingy and dinged-up is the superior, if ironic, choice. But I don’t ride one (anymore). In Minhang it was impossible to get by without one, and we rode day and night, sober and drunk, in bad air and good. We rode to get groceries, to visit friends, go out to dinner, back and forth to school. Riding home one evening from a restaurant with my two teenage daughters, my youngest, Colette, observed casually: “This is the most dangerous thing we do in China.” She was not being sarcastic. It was routine. Darkness. No helmets. Dodging scooters (without headlights) that blasted like bullets from the bad-air fog, shooting right at us or passing us from behind. This is not the hardware and spandex sensations that define American cycling. China is about functionality. We were practicing cultural competence.
Downtown, now, in Shanghai where everything is more abundant–cars, people, buses–the bicycles are more abundant too. Rows of bright yellow and orange “rentals” perk up dingy sidewalks. But the thrum of life at the corners of Changle Lu is too terrifying for me to navigate on bike. Complicating matters is the fact that many intersections in the French Concession are modeled after the spokes of a great wheel with branching roads all convening at a center hub. This is exactly how road design would occur in a country where the bicycle holds such prominence in daily life–but crosswalks are the axles of these wheels–and I’ve had one too many near-death experiences just walking across them.
But Chinese bicycles still fascinate me, and they remain an object of fascination for every western visitor who arrives in China. Every day a new rider whizzes past, balancing his precarious cargo: garbage, flowers, fish, cardboard, bamboo, plastic bottles, engines, people, weed killer, trinkets. China would not be China without its bicycles. But in this new chaos, I’ll stick to being a fish.