Saturday, October 10, 2009

Musings: I fought the law and the law...

I was nearly finished with my 150 kilometer ride and was hammering down a four-lane thoroughfare when I saw the police van on a side road to my right. It wasn't really a van. It's hard to describe. It was a weird, creepy vehicle with a large container in the back that is used for transporting people swept up at mass arrests at protests or factory riots.

I could tell the vehicle was preparing to turn into my path. The question was whether it would stop for traffic before merging onto the busy road. As usual, it didn't. It pulled in front of me and cut me off, causing me to grab a handful of brakes and swerve to miss its back bumper. I yelled out, "Wei! Wei! Wei!" (meaning "Hey, hey, hey" in Mandarin). The two police in the cab saw me out of the corner of their eyes, but they did what Chinese drivers usually do when they blatantly mistreat me on the road: Ignore me, pretend that I'm not really there.

The close encounter gave me an adrenaline rush and reawakened my contempt for the Chinese police, who for me symbolize one of the worst parts of the authoritarian regime. I sprinted to catch up to the vehicle and was almost able to pull up to the passenger side. I yelled, "Fucking assholes!" But they didn't acknowledge me before speeding away.

One of the great things about living in a foreign land is that the police usually don't understand your English expletives. However, they're often savvy enough to realize that you're disrespecting them, so I rarely confront them in this way. If they wanted to, they could haul me down to the police station because I didn't have my passport with me. It's the law that foreigners must carry their passports at all times. I never do when I'm riding because it can easily get wet or mangled. I've photocopied and laminated the important pages and keep them in a plastic ziplock bag in my back jersey pocket. But technically, this isn't good enough.

It only took me a minute to feel stupid about the incident. It's never wise to indulge in bouts of road rage on Chinese roads. While I was yelling at the police, I was unable to watch the road, and I rode over a big mound of concrete and almost fell off the bike. Lumpy, concrete blobs are common on the streets. I'm not sure how they get there. Maybe concrete trucks spill excess material and no one bothers to clean it up. They're extremely dangerous and you must be constantly watchful for them.

Venting in traffic is also bad form because a foreigner - especially a white man - rarely gains sympathy from the locals by yelling and screaming in public. It never looks good. As soon as you lose your cool, you've lost the battle. I think half the time, the Chinese don't even understand why you are mad. Last weekend, I was cruising down a road about 38 kph when a small sedan cut me off. The driver saw me coming, but, as usual, he didn't think he had to stop for me. I road up alongside the vehicle, slammed my palm on the car's roof a couple times and called the driver a "zhu tou," or a "pig head." The guy gave me a bewildered look, stopped his car and apparently had a brief conversation with his passenger about what the hell just happened. Why was the weird foreigner in Lycra yelling at him?

On my better days, I yell to the drivers, "Zhongguo pengyou! Xiao xin yidian!" or "Chinese friend, be careful!" Drivers usually acknowledge me when I do this and I don't come away looking like an uptight foreign jerk. I'm not sure if I'm able to convey the right message to the driver, but it certainly leaves me feeling better.

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