August, 2003 – HOHHOT IS MY HOME: First Order of Business—Transportation

Taken during my second year living in China, in Xijiang. This was outside of Hohot, on a trip to visit.

Taken in 2006, during my second year living in China, in Xinjiang. This was outside of Hohhot, on a trip to visit friends and students.

I’m here. I’m settled in. I now have two little booklets, each about the size of a passport— one is burgundy and embossed with golden Chinese characters on the front— it gives me the title of “foreign expert.” The other is paper-thin, and a gaudy orange color—it is a health exam report that lists my name, country of origin, and any other bio-metrical details I could conceive—and of course, there is a photo. Someone has saved me the trouble of coming up with a Chinese name, and I see carefully hand-written in ink, unintelligible Chinese characters which are thoughtfully accompanied by the romanized pronunciation: “MaSiYue.” I have to hand it to them—it sounds quite close to “Matthew,” but I later opt for “MaTai,” the Chinese translation of “Matthew,” as in “The Gospel of Matthew” in the New Testament.

In order to be allowed to teach, I had to go to the hospital to get some medical checks done. Everything checked out as “normal.” Each approval mark is identical—mechanically stamped in blue ink, save for one variation: when it comes to a special section titled “SARS symptoms.” To my relief, next to each category of “SARS symptoms,” the doctors had another stamp handy, which read: “none.” I certainly wouldn’t want to have “normal” SARS symptoms.

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I am arriving here in Hohhot on the tail end of a health epidemic that has spanned all of China. Later I will learn from my new-found American friends, who are also teachers on other campuses, that they were quarantined for weeks. I also learn some of them were resourceful, and didn’t suffer too much, per their discovery of a way to climb over the locked iron gates of their campuses at opportune moments when the guards were sleeping, or watching soaps.

My first order of business here is transportation. Having previously been to China twice before on short two-week tours as a college student on summer break, I quickly noticed the efficiency of the bicycle—a transportation solution that is quite appealing to a newly arrived foreigner. First, after the initial purchase fee, all transportation thereafter is absolutely free. Second, with the bicycle, it’s just the rider and the road—there are no crowded public buses leading to unknown destinations, or awkward disasters of conversations with taxi drivers, too frequently accompanied by pantomimes and a general feeling that they have taken one “the long way ‘round.” Thus, I have chosen to travel by bike—quite a contrast to the mode of transportation left to children, exercise freaks, and an otherwise small minority of adults in my home state of Louisiana.

A Chinese speaking American friend accompanies me to a nearby bicycle shop—before today, I would not have even imagined there could be such a thing as a shop specializing in only bicycles. To me, this shopping trip is a “no-brainer.” I have never been a picky shopper—I just need something in a masculine color that moves forward when I pedal—functioning breaks would be nice too. However, the shop owner is insistent that I “test it out first.” He gives me a once over, makes some adjustments to the seat, and I hop on—the seat is awkwardly high, even for me, who is most likely the longest-legged customer in the entire city of Hohhot. I am a fresh college grad, and haven’t been on a bike since junior high. I clumsily pedal ten yards or so, stop, pedal back to where I started, and hastily confirm my decision to buy the bike with one of the few Chinese words I know: “hao.” “Allright—I’ll take it. You had me sold on the navy blue color.” So are my thoughts, as I pay the several hundred yuan to the shop owner—an amount I am still unfamiliar with, but do not even attempt to calculate—What do I care? I have a bike.

The owner painstakingly fills out several receipts, each one carefully stamped with a seal in red ink, signifying the approval of the sale, much like the satisfactory state of my health signaled in that little orange book with its blue stamps. Finally, I am the proud owner of my own Chinese transportation. There are no gears to shift—my bike is a simple and straightforward affair—simply designed to go. After I make it back to the east gate of my school, I bid my American friend goodbye, and proudly roll my new purchase back to my apartment building. Theft is unfortunately a common occurrence in China, and though I brazenly leave my bike parked outside for the fist few nights, I later wisen up when when a student tells me about his bike being stolen.

All the foreign teachers wheel their bikes indoors and huddle them together on the first floor of our apartment building, just inside the lobby area, immediately after entering from outside. In here, it is not even necessary to put a lock on the bike—there is a “door lady” who always keeps a watchful eye on the comings and goings in the “foreign expert” portion of this building. She spends most of her days and nights in a glass-encased “room,” right there on the first floor. I do not know how she spends so much time in such a confined space. In the “living space,” which can’t be bigger than ten feet by five feet, there is only a desk, a chair, a wash basin, a television, and a bunk bed with a top, and bottom portion. Each night, Padma, our Mongolian mother, locks the doors of her foreign children’s building. Ironically, she wraps a bicycle lock around both inner handles, to prevent the doors from being opened beyond a mere crack. This action is almost in an effort to tell the rest of the world—”the bicycles contained within are sacred chariots and trusty steeds of the ‘foreign experts,’ and are safe in here. They are sleeping, and waiting for their masters to awaken, and take them out on a quest for adventure”—yes—an adventure in Hohhot.

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