Styrofoam Ducks

Newsletter Final Thought, December 2008

It’s only 4:17 but it is dark in Beijing. There’s no daylight savings time here. I just got home from the crispy cold of outside, having pedaled my bike back from the subway and then the post office. I ride a rickety old blue basket bike here that keeps me sitting upright like a prim, keener student taking notes on the traffic patterns of this city. There are no gears and so I have to pedal furiously to go anything close to fast.

I bundled myself up with many layers before I left the post office. I’m wearing a hoodie, but I am also now in possession of the first real winter coat that I have had since my parents provided for me in pre-adolescence. It was a gift from my lover’s Mother who took one look at me in my winter outer garment and marched me into a Chinese department store to buy me a down-filled, mid-length, hooded, draft-proof, zip-up-to-the-neck winter coat. I have always been opposed to buying the down-filled jackets, as a silent sign of support for the ducks, but I couldn’t explain this in Chinese to a slightly pushy, determined and concerned Chinese mother. I was fitted and layered before the two syllables “bu yong” (no need) could even be formed in my mouth. And so it is. I am sorry and grateful for the ducks now, all at once.

The trip from the post office to my home here in Beijing is about a fifteen-minute cycle. You have to cross two major bridges, which really means that you have to go under two major overpasses that are for the third and fourth ring roads, respectively, two huge traffic arteries that encircle the city. These overpasses have large intersections beneath them that always seem like daunting roadways to traverse in my opinion, regardless of your means of transportation. I’ve learned, since coming to China this past year, that crossing a road is to be done in tandem with others — never alone! So, I tend to attach myself to other cyclists and ‘do as they do’ so-to-speak.

(Birds of a feather…)

Today, I attached myself to the Styrofoam man.

On the back of his three-wheeled, two-stroke-engine-powered bike sat a pile of Styrofoam like none other I have seen before. Five-feet across and easily fifteen feet in the air, strapped together with rope and cables and all teetering at a slight angle, he looked like he was carrying a big snowy mountain. After closer inspection, they were pre-formed pieces of Styrofoam, like the kind you find inside boxes holding breakable electronic equipment, and they all stacked together like perfect Lego.

I thought, “This is the guy who I should cross next to. He’s the perfect shock absorber!” and then I smiled at my good fortune. He was the cyclist’s answer to an intersection life preserver!

When I was 12, my Dad helped me build a Styrofoam globe that housed an egg in its center. It was the science challenge and the whole class was invested with the responsibility of dropping an egg off the roof of the school without breaking it. My Dad said that Styrofoam was the real ticket to protecting it from the impact. The thing ended up looking like a big white spaceship and, to be honest, my Dad really built it; I just carried it to school and put an egg in it. And, yes, the egg survived. In fact, if I still had that magnificent egg spaceship and threw it off of an overpass (or “qiao 桥”) here in Beijing, it would surely have no need to scramble! 😉

And it was this that I thought about as I teamed up with the Styrofoam man today. I knew I would survive any impact from a wayward car if I tucked myself slightly back from one of his back wheels and kept up with him.

And so I did. I kept up with him the whole way home, in fact, even when we were on the stretch of Xiao Yun Road (霄云路)that has no traffic lights and empty blocks. During this stretch, he went into a higher gear and his little engine whirred at a higher pitch. I pedalled ferociously until my thighs burned and my little rickety bike groaned, looking like an erratic Western exercise commercial, I’m sure. But, I still managed to keep him just a few feet in front of me the whole time, close enough to memorize the pattern that those Styrofoam blocks made against each other as they swayed with each pothole in the road.

We passed a big, garish cement entrance gate, modeled with huge Greek columns as though what lay beyond were godly. This entrance has long been blocked to traffic and looks weather beaten — modern ruins. Beyond it is nothing. There are tall fences that stretch out from its left and right and encircle a huge city block that advertise the coming condominium complex. Smiling urbanites promise “modern” and “healthy” living as they sit in low-lit living rooms with purple and pink decor sipping martinis. I once asked a Beijing taxi driver what those gates once led to. He told me it used to be a park with a lake and people would go there on weekends to fish and relax. He said, at that time, just a decade ago, this whole area was just one farm after another. “Vegetable fields,” he said.

I pondered all this as I actively chose the non-exhaust side of Styrofoam man’s rear wheels as the side that I would shadow. Those two-stroke engine vehicles are brutal for the already abysmal air quality of Beijing. The city is growing too quickly to have put bi-laws restricting these kinds of vehicles in place.

Or to protect the lakes, it seems.

(Yet… One has to be positive.)

Styrofoam man never saw me. There are no rear-view mirrors on bicycles here, although there should be, especially on those big bikes with big loads! In any case, by the second overpass (Xiao Yun Qiao 霄云桥) where the road changes its name to Jiang Tai Lu (将台路), I was still on his heels as we crossed between streams of contradicting traffic, pedestrians and other cyclists. I imagined myself like the camper holding the stick and Styrofoam man like the marshmallow going bravely into the flames on my behalf. We made it out the other side of that fire pit intersection and shortly thereafter, I turned right down my road and he continued on.

My protector had left me to my own devices.

I pedalled slower then. Safer. In those last few moments before turning into my apartment complex, I realized that I had completed forgotten the cold. There’s no snow yet in Beijing and not much falls in the winter, I am told. Not anymore, at least. Like everywhere else, the weather here has changed dramatically over the past generation. Global Warming = Global Warning. But, in my optimism and belief that the small efforts make a difference, I am continuing to cycle this city. Even if it snows, I say.

I’m a bit nostalgic for a Canadian winter, though, especially now that I have finally got a jacket that is worthy of my country’s winter temperatures. Funny that I had to come all the way to China to get outfitted for Canada…

Thank you ducks.

I hope your wild friends find another lake.


Happy holidays, everyone.

– Ember

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