Friday, January 7, 2011

Red Bike Over China

(This is a guest post from my brother, David. David lived in Jinan, Shandong Province for one year from 2009 - 2010. He's now getting his master's degree at a European university. I asked him to write about his experiences cruisin' the streets of Jinan on his gasoline powered motorbike. Please check out the nine minute YouTube video he shot of one of his rides, at the end of this article.)

Dingy little motorbikes litter the streets of China – or at least the streets of Jinan, the somewhat rustic yet endearing city on the east side of China where I taught English for a year. Per testosterone and cherished memories of Grand Theft Auto, some of us (male) foreign teachers became infatuated with the idea of owning our own motorbikes. For months we didn’t pursue this ambition, mainly for logistical reasons: we didn’t know where to get them, we’d be skipping country in a matter of months, the winters in Jinan are hellish. Oh, plus it’s illegal for non-licensed folk to drive gas-powered vehicles, and the idea of brazenly defying Chinese law made us a bit queasy.

Eventually, though, as the bleak Jinanese winter gave way to cozy spring weather, a quartet of foreign guys, me among them, made the decision to get motorbikes. Law and safety be damned. Some of our adult students were intrigued (or at least entertained) by the idea of a bunch of foreigners darting around the streets of Jinan, so they gave us directions to a “bike market.” There, we were told, we could find any bike we wanted.

The bike market – along with the other adjacent markets – was one of the most bizarre places I saw in China. There was a decrepit stream encasing one side of the market, a stagnant pool teeming with motor oil, trash and a slew of unidentifiable refuse. Thankfully, we only saw one person doing laundry in it. We traipsed along the *creek* and passed what must be the world’s biggest cache of broken refrigerators, as well as places to buy clothes, TVs, and other items that were either dysfunctional, stolen or counterfeit.

Eventually, we stumbled across the bikes. Row after row of every conceivable genus of bike – big motorcycles, little scooters, three-wheeled flatbeds, everything. If it had an engine and less than four wheels, it was here.

There was a little cluster of bikes in particular that caught our attention. They were comically small and certifiably crappy – features that, for some reason, seemed appropriate. It’s akin to not wanting lobster and filet mignon at a Kansas City Chiefs tailgate: you don’t eat gourmet food at Arrowhead, and you don’t have a slick, aesthetically pleasing motorbike in Jinan. Or so went our logic.

We conveyed to the purveyor of this particular family of bikes that we were interested. He unlocked the chain that bound them together, grabbed a water bottle full of gasoline and fired up one of the machines. It didn’t have a key, but instead a pair of chords dangling out the front that acted as the ignition. It kept getting better.

Despite its minute size – waist-high and far shorter tire-to-tire than I was tall – the bike gave out a furious roar, sending plumes of blue-white exhaust into the air while it struggled to come to life. I hopped on and had the distinct sensation that I looked like Donkey Kong, the oversized Mario Kart character who himself dwarfs the size of his little go-kart.

It was perfect. It cost a hair less than $38.

Thus began my six-month-long love affair with my motorbike, which is featured in this film. This video was recorded by my then-girlfriend, who would often ride on the back of this thing even though, as you will see, it is hardly fit for one regular-sized person.

Riding a motorbike in China is nuts. Start with the sheer volume of people. Jinan, according to Wikipedia, has more than 6 million. There is no number of lanes that can accommodate that swarm of people. Add to that the relative lawlessness of Chinese streets compared to American ones, and the result is a chaos that you can traverse only with an unnatural combination of patience and recklessness. Often times, you just have to trust that the other drivers don’t want to get in a wreck, and will act accordingly. This hope-for-the-best philosophy seems to legitimize many of the common maneuvers in China – not using signals, not looking before changing lanes, not heeding oncoming traffic, driving at night without the headlights on…the list goes on.

Another complicating factor with the motorbike is sidewalk etiquette. In Jinan, the major thoroughfares have bike paths for pedal bikes and motorbikes. This is theoretically a boon for bikers – a way to avoid some of the kamikaze behavior that defines Chinese street traffic. Problem is that these bike paths are invariably littered with people walking like it’s a sidewalk.

What’s more, these bikeless pedestrians seem to have a heartfelt disdain for the concept of “look both ways.” One of my American co-workers, who himself had a motor bike and who himself was constantly dodging oblivious pedestrians, hypothesized that Chinese parents tell their children at a very young age not to look for traffic before walking because, if they did, they would never get anywhere: there is always traffic, and heeding every car or bike that drives by will prevent you from ever moving. By not looking, the theory goes, the Chinese absolve themselves of responsibility and can traverse even the busiest thoroughfares with blissful ignorance.

The accuracy of this hypothesis is debatable, but the anecdotal evidence is there. Chinese people, at least Jinanese people, don’t look where they are walking, even if there are bikes liable to be whizzing around them. The scariest manifestation of this practice is when people get off of buses. They charge out the back exit and hurl themselves into the bike lanes, which are mere inches from where people exit the buses. (Adding to the constant drama: my bike didn’t have functioning brakes or a horn. Don’t tell my mom.)

OK, so that’s the backdrop. Now on to the video, where you’ll see all of these nerve-racking variables in play: wall-to-wall traffic; suspect decision-making at stoplights; pedestrians who are impervious to the American roaring past on his brakeless bike.

For more long-winded blog posts about life in China, check out my blog.


Ramesh said...

Nice post David. Ah the joys of street etiquette in China. But you have to grant it that there's a certain "joie de vivre" in that experience.

Anonymous said...

Two things shocked me about the video. #1, I cannot believe how much speed you can get on that little thing with two people on it and that it only cost $38. #2, that the girl on the back doesn't yelp or scream at any point. Some pretty close calls it seemed from the video.

I saw your comments on your blog David, thanks.

I had to laugh when I read the part about "not being able to get anywhere" if you were to actually look and take precaution. When I was in Jinan and out with friends, I tried relaying to my guests that the Chinese seem to be in their only little worlds out on the streets and don't seem to take the time to "smell the roses"... or in this case the smog. I was met by befuddled looks and then my host matter of factly commented "you'd never get anywhere".

DD said...

Thanks, guys, for the kind words.

@Ramesh: I agree that there is something...endearing about the relative chaos of driving in China. While it was annoying and downright dangerous at times, I think it speaks to an overall "laidbackness" about China. After all, if people over there were sticklers for rules, then I would not have been able to ride this thing around in the first place.

@Hopfrog: That girl was a trooper. She never flinched. I'm glad you appreciated the not-looking-both-ways section. I was actually a little worried when I wrote that that it would come off as crass or disparaging of Chinese people (even if it makes perfect sense to me). I'm relieved that you got what I was saying. And that I lived to say it.