After strolling out to get the morning paper at my parents’ home, I stopped at the edge of the driveway and looked up at the sky over the Great Plains of America. I was immediately overwhelmed with a strange feeling. I felt like I was on a movie set. Or in a computer animation studio. It was surreal, as if I were in an unnatural place. For a few seconds, I felt dizzy, confused and disoriented. It was the color of the sky that did it to me. A beautiful light blue that I forgot existed. The white wispy clouds also seemed wonderful and weird.
Then I remembered: This is what the sky is supposed to look like! I really forgot that. My mind seemed to be recalibrating, getting loaded with updated software for my new life. Note to brain: Blue skies are normal now. Don’t be alarmed. Next, I took a deep breath and a big wiff of the air. It had no scent. Nothing. No car exhaust, cement dust, sulphury smells or stench of burning plastic. Again, I felt like I was in some kind of artificial dream world. I just stood there for a minute, inhaling and exhaling, feeling a bit dizzy.
After breakfast, my daughters and I went shopping at a Target superstore. My little daughter spent a lot of time in the toy department, darting from display to display, saying, “Wow, look at this!” or “Cool, I’ve never seen this before!” There was a mind-blowing selection of plastic do-dads and trinkets. We stood in front of a talking Buzz Lightyear display for about five minutes, pressing a red button and listening to him make 100 different comments in English AND Spanish.
What struck me was that most of the toys were probably made in factories near our former home in southern China. But we had no idea what was being churned out behind the factory gates. Because those factories were so busy, our skies were so smoggy and gray. But now, we can enjoy blue skies and an amazing selection of cheap plastic widgets! We’ll enjoy the good and try to avoid the bad.
One of the best things about being jetlagged in New York on a Saturday is that you’re wide awake at 5 a.m. and can go to Central Park to see if a bike race is happening. As I left my hotel, I was a bit doubtful I’d see many serious cyclists. I figured the roads would likely be filled with pot-bellied Wall Street bankers doing slow laps on BMC time trial bikes. But a few steps down the sidewalk, I saw two fit guys, one on a Cervelo and another riding an Orbea, riding uptown toward the park. Something had to be going on.
Sure enough, a race was about to get underway. As I got to the park, I started to see more and more riders with numbers attached to their jerseys riding to the boat house for the event’s 6 a.m. start. I decided to stake out a spot at the top of a climb near the 4-mile mark close to the West 82nd entrance to the park.
One thing I always try to do in New York is to go to my favorite gourmet grocery stores – Zabar’s and Fairway – on the Upper West Side. I’ll buy some olives, gouda cheese, salad, bagels, biscotti cookies and a cup of coffee. Then I’ll head to Central Park and have a picnic on a park bench as I watch a wonderful fitness parade of runners and cyclists go by. This time, I wasn’t able to do the gawk feast because of work and family pressures. But I was happy that I was at least able to sneak away to the park on my last morning, leaving a note to my sleeping family that I’d be back at 7:30 for breakfast.
I’ve never raced in Central Park. When I lived in the Apple in 1997-99, I didn’t even own a bike. I was just trying my best to cope with a stressful job, newborn baby and a tight budget in an outrageously expensive city.
I chatted a bit with a race volunteer who was posted at a crosswalk. He said it’s hard to stage a decisive breakaway on the Central Park circuit. There aren’t many climbs or other sections conducive to blowing apart a race. I didn’t see many riders who were successful in opening up a sizable gap. But I quickly lost track of who was racing in which category, and the Cat 1 and 3 groups seemed to blend together.
At one point, the Cat 1 guys caught the women.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay for the entire race. I had to scramble back to the hotel, pack my bags and head to the airport. Taking in a bike race is a fantastic way to finish a business trip.
If you haven’t already, check out this article on Velonews.com about a rash of broken carbon steerers on Trek frames. Trek says the catastrophic failures have more to do with compatibility and installation issues. I’m sure we’ll know more about this later, and I’m trying to keep an open mind. Trek has long been one of the best of the big brands. But I’ll say it again: The pressure to make carbon frames lighter and cheaper on a mass scale worries me.
For ages, I’ve been hoping that Dutch city bikes will catch on in the U.S. Last year, I read a story in the New York Times about how more people were riding them in N.Y.C. It’s always great to see it yourself, and that’s what I did this weekend in Central Park.
Getting pulled over by park police for running a red light in New York City, near the West 82nd entrance to Central Park. I really felt sorry for this guy. I didn’t witness the awful crime, and I’m wondering how the park cop got the cyclist to stop. Or why did the biker even bother to pull over? Did the police dude brandish his stick?
I once had a policeman in Guangzhou step out in front of my bike and try to get me to stop on Dongfeng Road, which bikes aren’t allowed to use. I slowed down and pretended like I was going to pull over, but as I drew close to him, I started mashing the pedals and deeked around the guy, who started blowing a whistle and waving a flag at me. I viewed it as an act of civil disobedience. Bikes shouldn’t be banned on a major road. It would be like New York prohibiting cycling on Broadway. But trust me, I would never ever run a red light. Oh no.
Another interesting manhole for my collection. I saw this one in Seoul the other day as I wrapped up another brief trip to Korea. I think the Koreans have a wonderful aesthetic and sense of design. I’m bad at identifying design schools. What would this be? Art Deco?
On my last day in Guangzhou, I withdrew a bunch of money from HSBC and closed my account. I’ll use some of the cash to buy a new fork for my Moots frame. OK, now that I’ve been able to peg this post to cycling, I’m going to talk about something else: The rigid adherence to policies and procedures that few Chinese seem to understand.
My latest experience at HSBC is a classic example. I walked into the bank, sat down at a fancy desk and told the banker in a suit that I wanted to exchange all of my Chinese currency into U.S. dollars, withdrawal it and then close the account. He said that I wouldn’t be able to exchange the money unless I could prove that the Chinese currency was earned in China. He seemed very certain about this, and he added that I might have to use “alternative channels,” meaning underground banks or the black market exchange.
I asked him if I could go overseas and just start withdrawing all the money in foreign currency with my ATM card. He said that I would only be able to access money in my foreign currency account, not my Chinese yuan (or RMB) account. I also asked him if I could take out all the Chinese currency and exchange it in another country, like South Korea. He said I couldn’t. Hmmm, this seemed fishy, but he sounded absolutely positive. But one thing I learned early on in China was that you ALWAYS should get a second opinion, then a third one and a fourth…
I called my wife, who was in South Korea, and asked her if she had any problems exchanging Chinese currency or accessing her Bank of China account with her ATM card. She said she had already done both things with no problems. I went back to the HSBC guy at the fancy desk and told him what my wife said. He called a colleague over and they had a long conversation in Cantonese, which they knew I couldn’t understand. He told me the ATM card might work in some places in Northeast Asia but it’s best not to rely on it. He still said I couldn’t exchange Chinese currency overseas.
I sought a third opinion and went to the teller window. I told the gal that I wanted to close my account and take out all the money in U.S. dollars. She said, “No problem!” The process took about 30 minutes as she filled out a bunch of forms by hand, but I walked out of the bank with about US$4,000. I was tempted to stroll by the fancy desk and fan the money in the guy’s face, but I decided not to push things.
This type of thing happens all the time in China. People don’t understand the policies. Often, policies and procedures are so nonsensical and confusing that they defy understanding. But it’s amazing that at HSBC – one of the world’s biggest banks – a guy sitting at a desk can’t give you accurate information about something as simple as exchanging money and closing an account.
My next task was getting the phone service canceled at my flat. I thought this would be a snap, but it turned into a Kafkaesque nightmare! I went to the phone company, told them I was moving and asked if I owed them any money. They said my accounts were all clear, but I needed to return an Internet/TV box set that I never used. If I didn’t give it back, I’d owe them 800 yuan (more than US$100). I went home, found the equipment and returned it. That’s when the phone company guy told me that I couldn’t cancel the service because it was taken out under my wife’s name. They needed to see my wife’s passport before they could close the account. I explained that my wife left early with my kids and wouldn’t be returning to China for at least a year, maybe never. They asked if she could make a special trip back to the country to sort out the phone business or at least mail her passport to the phone company so that they could terminate the contract. “Not bloody likely,” I said.
We went back and forth for 10 minutes, with the phone company guy insisting that he needed to see my wife’s passport. I finally said that I was being a good guy by making sure I didn’t owe anything before I left. I could have just disappeared without paying my bill and returning my equipment. I told him that in my mind, we’re all squared away. Everything is cool. If the phone company wanted to make a simple matter ridiculously complex, that’s fine with me. I no longer have to live in this dysfunctional Chinese universe. Then I turned around and walked away.
The phone guy never would explain why it was so important to see my wife’s passport. But a taxi driver explained that the phone company probably suspected that I was fighting with my wife and I wanted to cancel her phone service to get back at her. So, so sad. There’s an easy fix for the whole matter. The phone company just needs to flag our account in the system. If it’s inactive for one or two months, then automatically cancel it. Simple.
I just left China, maybe for good. I’ll be taking a year off to do a fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. When I finish, the company says a job will be waiting for me, but I don’t know where. I’m not too worried about it. Every so often in life, you must cast yourself out to sea. It’s definitely time for me to go.
For the past 22 years, I’ve been thinking about China every morning when I wake up. I’m leaving much more than a country. I’m leaving an obsession, a way of life, something that has framed my existence and has shaped my identity for a long, long time. It’s been like a marriage, with tons of time, effort and emotion invested in the relationship. What I’m doing now feels like a break-up. I’m not sure if it will be a divorce or just a separation. But I do know that we both need to get away from each other.
The seeds of my fixation with China were planted in the 70s. I still remember drawing pictures of Nixon on the Great Wall for a current events assignment in second grade. Years were spent learning to read, write and speak the language. I’ll never forget how my adviser in graduate school in the early 90s tried to discourage me from focusing on China. The country might continue to open up, he said, but it would always just be a big, sleepy Communist nation that would never really amount to much. I ignored him and it was one of the best things I’ve done in my life.
Egads! This is how the movers packed my steel Colossi. They wanted to lower the seat but the post was stuck so they just left it protruding from the top of the box.
Before I sat down to write this, I promised myself that I wouldn’t spend too much time sharing my parting reflections about the country. Many of my readers probably aren’t that interested. Most importantly, I’m reluctant to say too much until I’ve had some time to step back and reflect more about the big picture. Living in China can be emotionally and mentally draining. I need some time to sort out my thoughts.
But I will say that I left with serious concerns about China’s future. So much can go wrong, with the environment, economy and the seemingly stable but obviously brittle political system. Like many others, I once thought that China’s economic reforms would eventually lead to democracy and a freer society. This helped fuel my optimism and love for the country. But I no longer believe that now, and I doubt that the nation will become substantially more democratic and free in the next few decades. This won’t be too big of a problem for many of the Chinese I met in the streets. They gave me the impression that they just want normal, stable lives. They just want to be a bit more better off each year. I can understand this, but it doesn’t work for me.
What will happen to Waffles & Steel? I’m not sure yet. When I started the site, I knew that I would only be in China for a year or two more, so I wanted a blog title that would travel well and work in other countries. I imagine I will find plenty of things to write about as I cope with the culture shock I’ll feel after re-entering the Western world after being away for so long.
I’ll be hanging out in Seoul for a few days before heading to New York for the obligatory visit to the home office. The next stop will be Kansas City before the family and I resettle in Ann Arbor in late July or August – hopefully before the winter temps set in!
Longtime readers of Waffles & Steel will know that I’ve featured one of these bikes on the site before. But when I saw this guy the other day, I just couldn’t resist snapping a photo and posting it. I think these Styrofoam containers are used for seafood. I often see these guys riding through the city with what looks like a Styrofoam camper top. This is the first time I noticed the stabilizing strap that runs through the frame.
If you haven’t already, check out the nice write-up about Waffles & Steel on Cycling News Asia. It features a great collection of some of the best photos from this site, and the captions are much, much funnier than anything we’ve ever written!