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Cold Bones and Bike Repairs in Beijing

Can having your bicycle repaired in China’s capital become a social adventure?

December 23, 2005

Can having your bicycle repaired in China's capital become a social adventure?

While we all hear about the ever-growing number of cars on the roads of Beijing, bicycles are by far the best way to get around in the city. They are cheap, don’t add to the already terrible air quality — and move much faster than the congested traffic.

In fact, my quality of life in this city depends closely on the state of my bike. When it is in disrepair, I have a crowded and expensive commute to work by metro or taxi that can take up to 40 minutes.

When it is working, I live only ten minutes away from my office and am a very happy commuter.

So yesterday morning, when I went to unlock my bike and found the back wheel split open in three places, I knew my first priority upon getting home would be to get it fixed.

Fixing your bike in China means bringing it to any one of the hundreds of “bike repair stations” set up in every neighborhood in every village, town and city. These “stations” are just guys who set up shop on the sidewalk, complete with bike pumps, spare parts and extra locks.

I took my bike to my local repairman and he cringed. “You didn’t ride it like that did you?” I assured him that no, I did not, and asked him how much it would be.

While I was waiting for him to replace the tire, a small crowd started to form, as so often happens when I am outside interacting with a Chinese person for any period of time.

People just stop and stare. They come over and start reading the letter I have in my hand, or watching me dial a phone number in my cell phone.

Among the questions I got as I stood there today were: “Are you French?” “How much do you pay per month in rent?” “What do you do?” “Do you live alone?” “Do you speak German?” “Are you married?” “How much do you make per month?” “Have you eaten?” “How many years have you lived in China?” These are all very typical questions here that every foreigner is repeatedly asked.

One guy actually asked for my phone number. The conversation went something like this: “Allo! Bu no y tu?” “What?” I responded in Chinese, not sure what language he was aiming for, or what he intended to say. “Oh, you speak Chinese?” “Yes.” “Where do you live?” “Here.” “Are you in China to study?” “No, to work.” “Oh, you work in the bar district (a common foreigner hangout)?” “No, just in the neighborhood.” “Oh, me too. I make jeans for Europe.” “Oh.” “Can I have your number?” “What?” “Your number?” “No.” “Just to make friends?” “No, sorry. Have a good night.” “Ok, bye.” Unfortunately for this young man, the Chinese phrase for “let’s just be friends” sounds an awful lot like “why don’t you marry me,” which didn’t help with my sense that he wanted more than just to be friends.

By the time most of the neighborhood had come over to examine how I ate my eggplant bun or just how I sent text messages on my cell phone, my bike was repaired with a new tire and inner tube.

“Come back soon, anytime you have problems,” said my friendly repairman. “I repair bikes really diligently!” He assured me. I agreed and rode off in the direction of home.

No sooner had I nearly run over an old woman, however, than I realized that he hadn’t retightened my brakes after changing the tire.

I took the bike back to my “diligent” repairman and he said, “Oh, yeah, that’s pretty dangerous to not have brakes. We better repair those for you right away.”

So while he “repaired” them, I again had the opportunity to stand on my street, bait for interaction with my friendly neighbors. This time, an old woman stopped on her way down the alleyway — and stared at me with a very worried look on her face.

“Hello,” I said to her, feeling a bit awkward with the one-sided exchange. “How many pants are you wearing?” She scorned.
“Two,” I responded. So often, questions just seem so ridiculous to me here, so out of context and even unnecessary, that I am at a total loss for words — except the most brief direct answer to the said interrogation.

This question was no exception, so I told her that, because of the cold, I was wearing two pairs — one long underwear, one outside pair. “Oh, no no no no no,” she shook her head.

“You will get very sick. You don’t realize this now, because you are young, but the cold will enter your bones — and you will be very sick with you are my age. Always wear three pants. Three is the appropriate number.” I thanked her for her important advice and road away, this time with the brakes well adjusted.