Bob starts his month-long bike trip across America today – what an interesting thing to do on July 4th! I wish I could go with him but I was never much of an athlete.
He is using the same Trek bike he traveled with in China almost exactly 22 years ago. In July 1987, Bob had ridden it across
Bob told me later he often wondered if the Chinese roads were built as a punishment to bicyclists, but at least a bike had the advantage of easily negotiating its way through the unbelievable mass of human powered traffic; a car would not have been much faster than his bike. No cars: an unusual thing about
His goal had been to take an ambitious bicycle trip to
He sent me a letter whenever he ran into a post office. In Xi'an he gave me an estimated arrival time, July 22, probably late afternoon. He was amazingly on schedule until the second last day, when he was arrested in a rural town a few hundred kilometers outside of
About on July 21nd, he was stopped by a policeman in a green uniform, whose motorcycle was parked by the roadside and who said to the bearded foreigner in Chinese, “You are under arrest,” or something to that effect.
It was out of the blue. Bob, the “American bicyclist at large” – as he referred to himself then – immediately recalled a sign he had seen somewhere outside
Getting back on his bike Bob followed the police motorcycle to a dusty branch of road leading to a town building. In a second floor room two officers talked to Bob in Chinese, their manner a strange mix of friendliness and official business, leaking curiosity at times. They asked for his passport, and they asked why he was in this area where foreigners were not allowed (which he had no idea). After about an hour, when Bob’s crude Chinese could not address their questions satisfactorily, they fetched a local English teacher. The teacher, who it turned out had never seen a foreigner in his thirty-odd years of life, apparently was delighted to see a real English speaker in town. He tried to help both sides with his basic English. The interrogation went on for a prolonged time, whether because the teacher caused more linguistic confusion, or the confusion led the officers into better humor, Bob did not know. In the end, the officers required merely a fine and a confession.
“One hundred yuan for trespassing in a prohibited area. Two hundred yuan for unauthorized use of a vehicle,” the police told Bob. Whether this was truly a prohibited area, they did not say. The total was more than several months of the local English teacher’s salary. Bob paid the fine, then scribbled on a lined piece of paper, inserting as many words as he could to fill the page, to show that he took the confession as seriously as the Chinese.
The following is his hilarious "confession," which he reconstructed for me afterward:
The local English teacher orally translated Bob’s confession to the officers, stammering here and there. The officers looked satisfied. They told Bob that he must wait in the town’s hotel until the next morning to catch a train to
The English teacher volunteered to escort the American to the hotel. Then he disappeared. An hour or so later he reappeared. A bit timidly, he asked if Bob would like to teach an English class in his school. The surprised Bob said yes.
In a two-story clay building, a typical low-key town school, about twenty students sat behind their desks in a well-disciplined manner. Boys stared at the big-bearded foreigner and girls giggled softly. “Good afternoon,” Bob said.
The kids imitated him in neat unison; their teacher smiled proudly. The curiosity and seriousness of the children made Bob temporarily forget his arrest. He taught the class some simple English vocabulary for half an hour with much enjoyment.
Before Bob left, with a nod from the teacher, a boy presented a triangular red scarf to him with both hands. Such a red scarf was the mark of Young Pioneers, Bob knew, the official children’s organization in Communist China. Despite any political connotation of the scarf, this gesture of honor from the innocent elementary school kids was in such ironic contrast to Bob’s unexplained “criminal” arrest, he was both touched and frustrated.
He was put on the train to Chongqing early next morning. The modern transportation was many times faster than his Trek bike, of course, and it took less than two hours to cross the distance that he had planned for at least a full day. However he had no way to warn me about this shift to an earlier arrival. There was no such a thing as cell phone at the time. There was not even a land line in my house.
I received his Xi'an letter on Monday the 20th. That night I woke up with a start to the sound of rain pelting the roofs and drenching the earth. I lay in the dark thinking, How is he going to bike in such weather?
The downpour lasted two days. Tuesday I stayed awake through most of the night, finally drifting into dreamland near morning. I slept in, only to awake to loud shouts from downstairs: “A foreigner is looking for Xujun! An old foreigner!”
Old foreigner? Bob was only twenty-eight. It must be his beard!
It was about nine in the morning. Who knew when a bright sun had driven away the wind and rain! I put on my jeans and shirt in a fluster, grabbed a hairbrush and ran downstairs while combing my waist-length hair. Outside my apartment building, on the sidewalk, under the hot Chongqing sun I saw six-foot-tall Bob, in his red McGill University T-shirt, standing in a circle of onlookers five-feet or shorter. Those townsmen of mine were silent; their gazes unmistakably fixed on the foreigner’s face. Bob, his wide forehead blackened by sweat and dust, appeared quite baffled by this silent spotlight of so many human eyes. His one hand held the loaded Trek bike with a helmet hanging on its handlebar, and the other held a small notebook, in which I had written down my address in Chinese for him a month and a half before in
It was not a novel scene to me. Although the largest industrial city in southwest China, and in the 1940s China’s wartime capital bustling with American and British diplomats, since 1949 Chongqing had rarely seen foreign tourists. When I was an undergraduate student in
Now, once again I faced a band of staring humans, and my steps halted. I hesitated to step into a trap, to identify myself with the tall foreigner. But Bob had already seen me. He waved, smiling warmly and irresistibly. I squeezed into the ring.
“How should I greet your townsfolk?” he asked me in English.
Seeing the foreign man talking to a Chinese woman, the crowd became lively. A young man taunted, “Yang guizi!” and laughter ensued. Some touched Bob’s bike – few rode bikes in hilly
I still remember that morning vividly after 22 years.
Update: Some friends asked how I met Bob. Here is an earlier post that answers this question:
"Why Did You Come to America?"