It has been two months since I left China, and I’ve received several e-mails from friends asking about my new life. I’ve experienced the usual culture shock – some of which I’ve described here – but my overall cycling life has been fantastic. All of the riding I’ve done so far has been in the Kansas City area (on the Kansas side) and Ann Arbor in southeastern Michigan. Here are the things I like:
Clean Air - It’s great to come home from a long ride and not feel like I’ve just emerged from a coal mine, with a sweaty layer of soot stuck to my face. It’s wonderful not to cough up a pound of lung butter on a ride. I’m still blown away by the amazing blue skies I’ve been seeing in the U.S. The beauty often overwhelms me so much that I have to pull off to the side of the road and just stare at the robin-egg blue sky. I know it sounds sappy and New Agey but it’s true. I still shudder when I think of the toxic air I had been breathing the past six years in Guangzhou and Hong Kong.
Shortly after I moved to Ann Arbor, I took my personal computer to a shop to get a part upgraded. It was the PC that I kept on a small desk in a nook in my dining room in Guangzhou. Waffles & Steel was born on the machine. Anyway, the computer store technician opened up the processor and said, “Dude, was this thing really working?” I looked inside and was horrified to see that it was covered in dusty black fuzz. The stuff was close to choking the PC’s cooling fan. It was all over the motherboard. Like an idiot, I forgot to take a picture or collect a sample. Now I’m wondering if my lungs are coated with the black fuzz! It might be psychological, but it feels like I’m recovering faster from hard rides. I don’t feel like I ran a marathon while chain smoking unfiltered cigarettes.
Civility - In China, the drivers all seemed to be competing to see who could screw me over the worst. Cyclists had no rights. We were on the road because we were willing to be killed by a car or cement truck. Drivers could (and would) cut us off at will. They would harass us by honking at us constantly. It was on the roads where the ruthless, selfish, dog-eat-dog side of contempory Chinese society was really on display. So far, during my rides in Kansas and Michigan, I’ve felt like drivers are competing to see who can be the nicest to me. Last month, I was dead tired near the end of a three-hour ride in the blistering early afternoon heat. I was cooling down, just spinning out the lactic acid in my legs a few kilometers from my parents’ home. I was climbing a hill at a casual pace when a lady in an SUV stopped at a stop sign at an intersection at the top of the incline. She was ready to turn into my path until she saw me. Although the driver was about 200 meters from me and had plenty of time to make her turn, she sat there waiting for me to crest the hill. I gestured to her to go ahead but she sat there smiling. So I had to get out of the saddle and sprint to the top of the hill so she wouldn’t have to wait too long. She nearly killed me with kindness. On another ride, I was on a country road with a bunch of rolling hills. I began to sense there were several cars behind me but they weren’t passing. I did a quick shoulder check and saw a huge black pickup truck with a gun rack. I started to worry that maybe the driver was a redneck who was getting ready to mess with me. But I looked back again and saw there were 3-4 cars driving slowly behind the pickup truck. I realized that they were just waiting to get over the hills so that they had a safe section of road to pass me. In China, the truck would roar up to me, honking its horn until I pulled off to the side. Or the cars would just gamble, take their chances passing me on a blind uphill and hope they wouldn’t have a head-on collision with vehicles coming over the hill. Just one more example. On Saturday, I pulled up to an intersection with a green light. A car caught me just before the intersection and was a half-car length in front of me when it signaled it was turning right. The driver then stopped and waited for me to go past before making the turn. In China, if a car was a millimeter in front of you, the driver felt he had the right to turn into your path and cut you off. During the past two months, I’ve only had three bad experiences – all of which were minor. Last week, a guy in an old beat-up Chevy came racing up to me from behind, honking his horn like an idiot. It kind of made me feel at home.
Huh? “Soft Cake?” What’s wrong with “Waffle?” I thought about changing my Web site’s name to “Soft Cakes & Steel.” There’s some interesting alliteration going on, with the repetition of the “s” sounds. And “soft cake” is a good way to describe my quads … or my brain! But waffle is such a wonderful word. It comes from the Dutch “wafel.”
This sign is like many others I see on rides through Guangzhou. They constantly keep me wondering about the Chinalogic behind the ad slogans and images. It has become one of my new hobbies.
If a Chinese consumer is savvy enough to understand English, why wouldn’t the ad just use the word “Waffle” instead of “Soft Cake?” Perhaps “waffle” is still unfamiliar to most English readers in China, but most understand “soft” and “cake.” Imagine how confusing this must be for an English-language student. They see the picture of the waffle identified as a “soft cake.” Then they travel overseas and try to order a “soft cake” for breakfast. I guess it would be like an American traveling to China and trying to order “chop sooy.”
The Chinese term used in the ad for waffle is “ge zi dan gao,” which literally means “square” or “grid” cake. That certainly doesn’t sound appetizing.
Waffles haven’t caught on in Guangzhou yet, though they’re wildly popular in Seoul, one of the capitals of cool, where “waffles & wine” cafes are all over the place.
My wife recently sold our old waffle maker at a rummage sale at our apartment complex. A Chinese couple bought it and my wife said, “They had no idea what it’s used for, but they still wanted to buy it!” I can imagine them pressing cabbage or searing fish with it. Wouldn’t it be ironic if they used it to reheat some turtle meat leftovers!
I wish I could have given the Chinese couple my best tip for making fluffy waffles: separating the egg yolks and beating the egg whites for a few minutes before gently folding them into the batter. Makes a world of difference.
I saw several of these signs last weekend on the long descent on Nankun Mountain. They always crack me up because they say so much about the Chinese approach to driving. In China, the most important safety device in a car isn’t the brake or a gas pedal being operated by a sane and sensible driver. Nope, it’s the horn. When in doubt, honk your horn!
Another thing that I like about this is that the signs warn drivers of a blind curve when the curve is already clearly in view. Drivers really need to see this sign about 20 meters earlier, especially on a wet road.
In China, when you’re approaching a blind turn, you don’t need to slow down. All you need to do is toot your horn. And that’s exactly what everyone does! They certainly don’t slow down. If they don’t hear any honking, they rip around these corners, often straying into the other lane. On Saturday, a van decided to pass us by moving into the other lane just as it was about to round the corner.
I’ve been climbing in the mountains in Taiwan this week, and I noticed that the Taiwanese don’t encourage horn honking. Instead, they put signs ahead of tricky sections of roads urging drivers to slow down. In most cases, they paint a huge Chinese character that says “slow” on the road before dangerous curves.
I think the Chinalogical explanation for the horn-honking signs would be: Right, it’s common sense that when you’re driving down a twisty-curvy mountain road, you MUST drive slowly. Do people really need to be reminded of this? Isn’t it a natural reflex? What people DO need to be reminded of is to beep their horn just as a courtesy to oncoming traffic. You can never use your horn enough! An extra toot or two never hurt anyone.
The problem with the Chinalogic is that many drivers seem to assume that if they aren’t hearing anyone beeping, there is no oncoming traffic to worry about and they can continue speeding around the corner. I’ve seen this happen too many times.
UPDATE: A reader with an impressive grasp of Chinalogic made an astute comment on Waffles & Steel on Facebook. I think this is the best explanation so far of what might be going on with the horn honking. The reader said, “I’m not sure if this still holds in Chinalogic, but a decade or so ago, bus drivers routinely killed the engine and careened down tortuous mountain roads with their lights off in neutral at night – to conserve fuel, you understand. It seems that when rounding a corner in a silent behemoth flashing no light beams, it’s the least you could do to toot on the horn to warn oncoming vehicles of your existence.”
The Chinese sensibility continues to mystify me. Their aesthetics and relationship with nature are so difficult to understand. I took these pictures at Bapian Mountain. As you climb the mountain, there are beautiful rock faces (Is that the right term?) where construction crews cut through stone when building the road. The sad thing is that on many of the rocks, officials have painted slogans urging people to prevent fires.
"Beware of starting fires with cigarettes"
What seems bizarre to me is that they spent millions building this highly technical road that winds its way 7 kilometers up this mountain just to get to some type of telecom station. The road is really an engineering marvel. Yet, they decided not to spend a little money on signs telling people not to carelessly toss their cigarette butts. Instead, they decided to ruin the beauty of these rocks by painting on them. Still, the only type of trash you see on the road are cigarette butts (though I did find something else that’s really interesting and I’ll write about it later).
I try really hard to see things from the Chinese point of view. Here’s my best stab at the Chinalogic this time: “If we build a sign, someone is just going to tear it down or the wind will blow it away. Without the sign, people will start flicking their ciggy butts again and spark a brush fire that threatens the city below. Tens of thousands of lives could be in danger. We could be blamed for not creating a really durable sign that warns the masses about causing fires. So considering the threat, it’s OK to create an indestructible sign by spray painting a few rocks. Most of the others will remain in their natural state, so there’s plenty left to admire. Like the protagonist in ‘Crime and Punishment’ said: One crime, a thousand good deeds!”
This scene perfectly captures Guangzhou’s ambivalence about the bicycle. Just a block from my home, it’s a beautifully marked bike lane, with a cool blue sign, bike symbol painted on the street and a thick white stripe. But then the bike lane is chopped up into parking spaces. I guess it’s a bike lane until someone parks there.
When one of my friends encounters a mind-boggling thing like this, he likes to point out that the Mandarin word for logic – or “luoji” – was borrowed from the West. I’m not sure what to make of that. The English language doesn’t have a word for “schadenfreude,” but that doesn’t mean it’s an alien concept we needed to learn. But things like this make me wonder about the government’s grasp of “luoji.”