Saturday, July 4, 2009

The American Bicyclist at Large and His Adventure in China

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 China – from Harbin to Chongqing – to fulfill a date with me. It took him three weeks in the wind, rain and sun, during the night sleeping on the roadside in his tiny tent and green sleeping bag. He was probably the first foreigner to do such a bike trip alone in PR China. He had taken tons of interesting slides along the way; too bad I have no way to digitize them.

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 China.

His goal had been to take an ambitious bicycle trip to Tibet. Instead, he found himself on the way to Chongqing, to meet a Chinese woman he fell in love with.

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 Chongqing.

About noon 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 Beijing, “Foreigners Not Allowed Beyond This Point,” in both Chinese and English. But this was the Sichuan Province, about two thousand kilometers from Beijing, and he hadn’t seen any such sign around. Nor had he seen any sensitive construction like a military camp or prison. The only curious thing was that he heard people speaking in Shanghai dialect, which he recognized from having lived and taught in Shanghai for nearly a year. He was not aware of the migration of many defense factories from Shanghai to Sichuan in the 1960s, preparing for the Third World War that Chairman Mao predicted would soon be started by the American imperialists.

In China, unlike other parts of the world Bob had ridden through, he was almost always part of an entourage. With so many people riding bikes there were always a few who would keep pace with him, curious about him and his foreign bicycle. Sometimes they would talk, but as often as not they would just stare. Still, they were not unfriendly and at times he felt like he was simply part of the landscape. With a helmet on his head and bushy beard covering his lower face, however, it was not a challenge for the policeman to pick him out of the crowd. Still, Bob was calm; after a year, no longer could anything be thought too strange, for this was China.

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:

It is apparent to me now that my appearance in an area of the countryside where I encountered the constabulary was cause for some concern. Though I was unaware of any interdiction relative to myself in that specific area it is beyond a doubt true that I was indeed there. This said, it seems appropriate that I pen my name to this document in recognition of the fact that this is indeed what is expected of me. Therefore I am doing so now. Though the device by which my humble bicycle has become a vehicle whose legality is in question remains a deep mystery to me, it seems best to accept circumstances as they have presented themselves. In the future I will endeavor to avoid any such encounters and heartily refrain from any flagrant presentation of my own existence in any location at which it might be deemed offensive, inappropriate or otherwise outside the scope of day to day affairs.
Signed, this 21st day of July, 1987

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 Chongqing, as he was not allowed to travel by bike in this area. Could he walk around town by foot? Bob asked. Yes, that would be okay, said one of the policemen, with unexpected friendliness.

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 Shanghai. He looked at this person and that in amusement, making inquiries in both English and crude Chinese: “What? Shenmo?” He tried to move in one direction then another; the crowd retreated and advanced with him like an unbreakable giant rubber band.

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 Chongqing University in early 1980s, one day on the street I ran into an American professor who worked for the Sichuan Foreign Language College. It was the first time I had seen a white man with my own eyes instead of on a screen. At that time I was extremely tired of the mandatory politics class in school, and I had the sudden impulse to know if American universities had similar classes. The American man was buying a roll of high-quality toilet paper, the kind we ordinary Chinese regarded as a luxury, from a small grocery store on the side of a main street near the Liberation Monument. I heard him speaking fluent Chinese to the store clerk. I approached him and asked my question. “Yes,” he said. “Of course American universities have politics classes.” We were both speaking Chinese, but he looked baffled. His answer and expression confused me and I wanted to probe further. Just then, I noticed that the two of us were surrounded by a large crowd of onlookers, so large that they blocked traffic on the street. Embarrassed by the hundreds of eyes staring at me, I ran out without saying good-bye to the professor. Not until many years later, when I became a graduate student at MIT, did I realize how ignorant my question was. It’s not that American universities did not offer classes on politics. The difference was that to take the class or not was your own choice, not a mandatory imposition on daily life.

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 Chongqing. I said nothing and led him out of the encirclement. The crowd reluctantly opened a breach to let us go.

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?"


Scott W. Galer said...

Xujun, thanks for sharing this warm, personal recollection. Have you written elsewhere about how you and Bob met in the first place? I enjoy your blog very much.


Xujun said...

Thanks Scott. I did write about how Bob and I met in a personal essay, and an excerpt of it was posted in this space:

Rusty said...

I'd wondered about this story, Xujun, of how you two met and what it was like. Thanks for writing it.

Hope you're well.

Xujun said...

Hi Rusty, thanks for dropping by! I'm busy gardening this long weekend. Hope someday you'll come to see my garden. :-)

richard said...

Hi Xujun, sweet sweet story! Slide scanners are not expensive, but if that's an issue, I would be happy to arrange digitizing services for you & Bob, if you're willing to share at least low-resolution versions of the images. I think many people would find them interesting.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your story.

FYI, there are plenty of places that offer bulk digitizing of slides. Here is a link to a service that has been favorably reviewed by the New York Times. It would cost about $385 to scan 500 slides at 2000 dpi:

Xujun said...

Thanks guys! I'll look into those options.

Matthew said...

I'm amazed that he took that trip once and is willing to try again with so many more cars on the road. It is a really cool story to be able to tell everyone.

Xujun said...

Hi Matt, Bob doesn't seem to care about the cars so much, other than the noise. :-)

Pete said...

Lovely story, Xujun! Plus it's always interesting to hear about China in the 1980s.