Cultures meet during run through China
As a runner, some of my most memorable workouts have been cross-cultural encounters. One morning, in the summer of 1999, while visiting Tokyo, I headed to the fivekilometer-long sidewalk that encircles the Imperial Palace. After settling in on the rolling loop, I gradually came upon, and then passed, a local runner. Apparently he didn’t like being passed, because he accelerated and overtook me. At that point, our different nationalities were irrelevant. Our male egos took over, and it was on. An epic, lactate- threshold inducing two-loop race ensued. (He won.)
In the spring of 2003, I was living and working on the Sichuan University campus in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in southwestern China. It only took a few days to piece together a nice, four-mile loop around the perimeter of the large, extremely dense, urban campus. Five days a week, I exited campus through the North Gate, ran clockwise in a bike lane so I never had to stop at intersections, returned through the North Gate, and then headed to one of the university’s black cinder tracks where I ran one or two more miles.
I’d like to take you back to a memorable Sichuan University loop run:
My wife, Lynn, bicycles slightly behind me as I weave through campus toward the North Gate. We admire the slow fluid movements of elderly people practicing tai chi and the discipline of students repeatedly reciting English phrases while slowly pacing. We pass through the North Gate and turn right onto First-Ring Road.
Newspaper delivery workers in matching blue vests fold morning papers. Like salmon in a stream, we are surrounded on both sides of the bike lane by a sea of secondary students wearing matching blue and white sweatpants and windbreakers. Some make eye contact, but most pedal straight ahead in silence.
One mile in: To my left, out of the corner of my eye, I see what appears to be a person in the middle of the four-lane road. Then I wonder, where’s Lynn? Glancing behind me, I realize not only has she stopped, she’s climbing over the short chain-link fence that separates the bike lane from the busy thoroughfare.
Given the passivity of the growing crowd at the adjacent bus stop, she’s taken it on herself to save a half-naked, disheveled, suicidal man. By the time I backtrack and hop the fence to join her, she’s in tears. The crowd at the bus stop grows while Lynn and I pull the troubled man by his elbows to the side of the road. A few onlookers tell us what’s painfully obvious: he’s mentally ill.
While I comfort Lynn, the man crawls back into the middle of the street. Two people reach for their cell phones while Lynn frantically redirects traffic. Finally, some Chinese men direct him back to the sidewalk a second time, and we continue hoping the police will arrive soon.
Two miles in: The experience was so surreal, only in talking about it a bit does the reality begin to sink in. A few minutes later, we turn right off of First-Ring Road, and then down a short, but treacherous S-turn to what I call Bamboo Park Road. The S-turn is tricky because hundreds of secondary students shoot down onto it from an adjacent street.
Somehow, Lynn and I zigzag in and out of the tightly packed group of bikers wearing blue and white and continue on a mile-long straightaway adjacent to a wooded park and polluted river.
Some higher up in the bicycling hierarchy, on fancier mountain bikes with gears or silent electric bikes, whiz by us. We pass slower riders who have a gentle, fluid, couldn’t-care-less pedaling stroke that contrasts starkly with the pace of change all around them.
We come upon a slow pedaling young mother and her preschool-aged son. Still sleepy, in his wire bike seat, his head rests gently on the middle of her back, bouncing in unison with the cracks in the road. A bus getting up to speed slowly passes us, and a man calls to me out a back window, “Hello!” to which I reply, “Hello!” Inside the bus, his compatriots crack up at the depth of our exchange.
Three miles in: Lynn and I aren’t talkative. Instead we silently soak up our surroundings. Poor street sweepers wielding four-foot-long strands of hay clean sidewalks. We weave onto one to avoid a slow-moving, water-spraying street-cleaning truck. Despite all the cleaning going on around us, we’re still on the lookout for freewheeling spitters. In China, spitting is a widespread and deeply ingrained habit that even SARS concerns haven’t slowed. It isn’t just the preserve of crude men either. We’ve learned to be on-guard against everyone including petite women in professional clothes.
Along the river, a homeless man picks through a trash can. A group of retirees, one who has hung his birdcage on a neighboring tree branch, do calisthenics together. Threewheeled open-wagon bikes pass us carrying skinned pigs and cows. One is filled with water and live fish. Others carry furniture, several cases of beer and computer boxes.
One rider takes a turn a little too quickly and loses a case of beer in the middle of an intersection creating a pool of broken glass and foam. Rickshaws, mopeds and motorcycles are mixed in with the two and three-wheeled bicycles. One motorcyclist places his left foot on the empty wagon of the three-wheeled bike in front of him, helping his friend go from 10 to 35 mph. One man on a rickshaw uses his only leg to pedal furiously, another without any legs, pedals a converted rickshaw with his arms.
Four miles in: To get to his stop, a bus driver drifts into our bike lane, forcing us onto the sidewalk again. After passing his parked bus, we hop back down into the bike lane. I wave at a fast runner going the opposite direction. Surprisingly, a few minutes later I hear his footsteps behind me. As he pulls up beside me, I say, “Nihao.”
“Hello,” he responds.
I increase my pace to match his. Our different cultures, language, and life experiences are irrelevant as we run side by side, stride for stride for a wonderful kilometer. Suddenly he says, “Goodbye,” to which I simply reply, “Tsijin.” As my new friend turns left, Lynn and I make our final right turn back under the North Gate into campus. I head to the track, Lynn to our apartment.
A few weeks later, walking through an alley just outside of the campus, we pass our First-Ring Road “friend,” head down, walking the opposite direction. He is still troubled, but alive
Ronald S. Byrnes is an associate professor of education at PLU.