Chinese Puzzle Box

Explorations in and about China

Fox Spirit 5: Bicycle River


  The afternoon of Sara’s first day in Beijing was a blur of offices, all connected in some way to Sara’s request to have a phone in her apartment. “Lucky you are living in Bei Hua,” Silver Wing told her. “You can connect to the University network. Much easier.”  But by the time Silver Wing had led Sara to the office of the Bei Hua Registrar to get a certificate of residency, to the university accounting office to set up an account, and to the university operations office to schedule a time for getting the phone connected, Sara was dizzy from answering questions and filling out forms. She did not protest when Silver Wing suggested a nap after they returned to Sara’s apartment.  “You rest, I will put away food.”  Sara lay down on the hard bed and was instantly asleep, waking only when Silver Wing shook her shoulder gently an hour later.  “Not good to sleep too long.  Save some for tonight. Now we will go to Zhongguancun to get phone.  Bei Hua will not provide a phone.”

            Silver Wing ushered Sara into her small silver sedan, and exited a different gate from the university grounds.  Sara gasped as they came to a stop at an intersection.  It seemed that a river of bicyclists was crossing in front of her, hundreds and hundreds of cyclists, handlebars almost touching, barely room to pedal, more than she had ever seen or imagined in one place. “Is it a race?” she asked Silver Wing.  “Why so many bicycles?”

            Silver Wing looked at her in surprise.  “Not so many.  This is only a side road, three lanes each way, one for cars, two for bicycles.  And only afternoon traffic. Later on, after working hours, or on the main roads, like Chang’An, you will see many more. Do not Americans ride bicycles?”

            “Yes, but not so many.  We more often drive cars.”

            “Ah, we are still catching up to Western ways.  For us, when I was growing up in the countryside, we all wished for the Three Rounds – A bicycle with its round wheels, a sewing machine with its round power belt, and a round-faced wrist watch.  A bicycle is very good for traveling around Beijing, which is mostly flat.  Not so good in winter, maybe, but then we have the buses.”

            Suddenly the river of bicycles parted.  The light had changed.  Silver Wing drove slowly across the intersection, surrounded by bicyclists.   Sara shivered as she imagined herself on a bicycle among the throng. 

            When Jerry Wang arrived at 6 p.m. with a picnic-basket dinner of dumplings, rice, and long beans, Sara asked with some embarrassment for the use of his cell phone to call the US. She needed to reassure Mark that she had arrived safely. But the time difference found her reaching only the answering machine. Of course – it was only 3AM in California. Thank goodness she had not awakened Rennie or the baby. She listened with longing to Mark’s familiar recorded voice, enjoying the brief illusion of a conversation before she left her message.  

            Sara did her best to stick to Mandarin over dinner. But several times she caught Silver Wing and Jerry Wang exchanging smiles and glances as she hesitated over the right word.. Finally in exasperation, she challenged Wang:  “All right, I know I said that wrong. But what did I say that made you laugh?  I said ‘Wo yao wen ni…  I want to ask you….’  I think the words are right – what is so funny?”

            Silver Wing giggled and looked down. Wang grinned broadly. “You used the wrong tone. ‘Wen’ with a falling tone means ‘ask’. ‘Wen’ with a rising tone means ‘kiss’.”  Sara replayed the sentence in her mind and groaned.

            “Don’t worry. It’s not a problem,” Wang said gently. “We’re friends, and I know enough English to understand what you meant to say. Maybe we should speak English until you have a chance to get used to the tones of Mandarin.”

            “No. I must practice. I can’t learn Mandarin by speaking English.”  Sara fought to keep a quaver from her voice. She was suddenly very tired again.

            Wang nodded. “This is true, but you won’t learn everything on the first day.”  He pushed back his chair. “Now we’ll leave you to dream, perhaps in Mandarin. I will not be in the office tomorrow, but you remember Trueheart Zhang, who worked at our California office? He’ll come for you in the morning to bring you to the office. ”

            The Wangs left, and Sara was alone. She took off her clothes slowly, savoring the silence and the cool air from the window air conditioner on her skin. Her thoughts skipped over her first day in China. Silver Wing’s kindness, her timidity. The staring curiosity of the bystanders. Silver Wing’s childlessness. What would it be like to live with Mark and Rennie – three generations under one roof? We would have killed each other.


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