The Bikes of Chengdu

In the Spring of 2017 the dockless shared bike system fronted by Ofo made its way to the campus of Mianyang Teachers College in China’s Sichuan Province. The craze had spread across China’s larger cities, and to Sichuan’s capital Chengdu earlier. At the time my students expressed pride in this “great Chinese invention”–and then were confused when I explained China didn’t invent bike sharing, as it was used in the US for some years. What Chinese companies had done was improve, as it were, a system already in existence.

New Ofo bikes on Mianyang Teachers College campus, April 2017

The yellow bikes flooded the campus and were a great way for students to make their way from the main campus buildings to the front gate, 2km away. Yellow Ofos and silver and orange Mobikes also appeared around Mianyang city, with other companies stepping into the frenzy, too.

The concept relies on convenience: need a bike? Here’s a bike! It’s cheap and easy, use it and leave it wherever you are when you’re done. Yet problems in this system became apparent and only grew from there. My students, not used to questioning and critical thinking, missed the potential problems in their pitch to me, such as in order to keep costs down the company mass manufactured crappy bikes that broke down easily; someone has to be paid to keep the bikes repaired and in circulation in popular areas; and if people can, they will leave them anywhere–and I mean anywhere.

As it turns out, Ofo and the other bike share companies were not concerned with repairing bikes; they have left behind mass graves of misplaced, broken, and decaying bicycles throughout China. Furthermore, Ofo’s expansion to the world has now been retracted, with the company struggling to stay in business in China.


The number of bikes that littered the streets of Chengdu grew as if they reproduced like rabbits. By January 2018, the problems in their business model became glaring (to me), especially traveling through the central part of Chengdu. It’s as if they hadn’t thought–or cared–about how many people actually might use their product and the logistics involved in such an operation with so many bicycles, nor about the cost to the environment.


When I gazed in awe at their mass numbers, I realized this was a recurring pattern in how Chinese do business. Locally, at least, small businesses opened and closed all the time, sometimes with short lifespans. They had failed to do appropriate research on product, location, and target consumers.

Uncertain about the future of dockless bike sharing, below I posted a tribute to the bikes of Chengdu.

Beijing

In the final days of my time in China (July 2018), I was able to take a quick trip to Beijing. I only had a few days, which left me quite rushed, though I made the best of it. Here are some photos.

What Beijing trip wouldn’t be complete without visiting Tiananmen square? The square itself is big and empty; one feels small standing out in the open, the large buildings at it’s borders seem far away. Tiananmen’s significance, however, cannot be understated. At it’s borders are the Forbidden City, National Museum, Great Hall of the People, and Mao’s mausoleum–all central monoliths of Beijing and China. Each of those places has it’s own security to get in and out of them as is normal across China, but what stands out is the strict security even to enter Tiananmen Square’s vast empty space. Foreigners must present their passports, Chinese their national ID. One must pass through a metal detector and place any bags through scanners. The police looked at my ID much in the way any security would, and then waved me through. As I walked on, a policewoman was flipping through a notebook of a Chinese woman who stood next to her– to enter Tiananmen, Chinese nationals are given more scrutiny.

As I walked around, I imagined the thousands of students who filled the space in 1989 and the chaos and blood that filled the streets after the government soldiers and tanks rolled through. The 1989 student protest and subsequent massacre is a forbidden topic within China. Had I breached and publicly talked about it when I lived and worked there, I could have been expelled from the country.

Here is a photo from exiled Chinese artist Ai Weiwei from a series called Study of Perspective in which he photographs a middle finger in front of many of the world’s significant landmarks.

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From Ai Weiwei’s Study of Perspective, Tiananmen

Lijiang

Last week I wrote about the wonder I experienced when I visited the Tiger Leaping Gorge in the Yunnan Province last April. During that trip I also visited nearby Lijiang, though I had less than a day to spend there before I had to be back in Mianyang. Here are some photos from that quick late afternoon to morning jaunt through the old town.

 

Witness to Creation

The gorge is a magnificent sight. Jagged peaks rise straight from the ground below, a stunning contrast in front of the white clouds and blue sky. Formed  by techtonic plates pushing up rock and millenia of wear from water and wind, the sheer faces of the peaks are unparalleled. Deep in the valley below water flows over rock emitting a constant roar, while small homes like tiny specks are swallowed by the towering mountains above. One road cut by machinery into the side of the rocks offers human visitors a fantastic and terrifying route through the gorge.

Some years ago I read writings of naturalist John Muir. One quote that stuck with me:

“One learns that the world, though made, is yet being made. That this is still the morning of creation. That mountains, long conceived, are now being born, brought to light by the glaciers, channels traced for coming rivers, basins hollowed for lakes.”

I was reminded of this when I stood in front of Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡) in China’s Yunnan province this past April. The mountains formed over time are still being formed.

The two nights I spent at the gorge were among the most peaceful during the two years I lived in China. I hiked with a friend, our view of the gorge and conversations still rining in my ears though months have since passed.

“Do I have to go back to Mianyang?” I wrote at the time, referencing my home in Sichuan, and normal life of teaching. Every moment at the gorge I soaked up like a sponge, alive in the moment, yet anticipating the stress awaiting my return.

It is still the morning of creation–and for that I am ever grateful to be alive and witness to this ancient process.

 

Long Overdue Post

Apologies for the long silence on this blog. Since the last post, I have completed the last semester at Mianyang Teachers’ College and closed my service in the Peace Corps in mid-July. After a few weeks of travel, I returned to Seattle and started work at the end of August. I never intended such a long break, as there were many noteworthy happenings in the Spring and Summer. Now is the time to pick up that slack.

I last left off recounting my experience in Xi’an during the Spring Festival holiday. Below are a few photos of what Mianyang looked like during the holiday this past February. A characteristic of so many Chinese cities are LED-lit buildings that light up the night sky and accentuate drab buildings into colorful panoramas. During the Spring festival, lanterns are hung everywhere, adorning the city with red. Combined it provided a wonderful place to walk in the evening.

Traveling to Xi’an and Huashan

Xi’an(西安) is an ancient city spanning thousands of years, and was once the capital of China. Emperor Qin Shi Huang had his Terracotta Army built near Xi’an, and dates back to 246 BCE. The warriors were not found until 1974, and excavation and restoration is an ongoing project to continue for decades. Today Xi’an is the capital of the Shaanxi Province and a blend of ancient and modern. Since last December, the high speed rail now operates in Xi’an, thus greatly reducing the travel time from my home from 14+ hours to between 3 and 3.5 hours. I used the national holiday over the Lunar New Year to travel there (as did many thousands of others).

People Mountain People Sea

After living in China for more than a year and a half, I’m used to dealing with crowds of people, but there’s nothing like traveling when a billion people have the same holiday. The best decision was visiting the Terracotta Army on the actual New Years day, since most Chinese people will spend it with family. The crowds were noticeably lighter in the city, at least just for that one day. There’s an expression in Chinese, 人山人海, which when translated literally has become the Chinglish phrase, “People mountain people sea.” Meaning, a huge crowd of people. That sums up a lot of the experience living in China. One of the most crowded areas in Xi’an was the Muslim Quarter, because while most restaurants remained closed during the week of holiday for New Year, they were open for business. But man, was it worth it to eat some amazing food.

Nearby Xi’an, and also connected on the high speed rail, is Huashan (华山) or, Mt. Hua, one of China’s 5 sacred mountains. The panorama of its peaks are stunning, even in a bit of haze. I hiked up the trail from the west gate, a 6km path of many stone steps with a stretch of steep climbing. Because of the crowds and my two companions, we only ascended to the North Peak and then took the cable car back down. But I plan to go back–there are trails around the peaks and a dangerous side-of-the-mountain trail called the plank walk. Stay tuned, hopefully in Spring or early Summer I’ll have another shot to hike around Huashan.

A Look Back to December

After a blog break, I’m back, and now with photos from December. It was a busy month and end of the semester. The highlights were hosting another excellent Christmas party and once again sharing my cookie baking tradition (see my post from the previous year). Then on Christmas Day a few other foreign teachers and I went out to a local restaurant that serves Thai food. I did have to teach on Christmas Day, but as we had already finished our final exams, I showed a movie.

The next semester starts in March. Between now and then is the Chinese New Year and a bit of traveling for me.

What Gives Me Life

For those of you who know me and have followed my journey for awhile know my personal struggle with the genetic disease called Neurofibromatosis. To those new to my journey, it is apparent when looking at a photo of me that something is different. This post is about living with Neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1), and what actually gives me life.

NF1 is a genetic disease that, among other manifestations, causes tumors to grow on the body anywhere there are nerves. Half of all those with NF1 inherited it from a parent, the other half because of a spontaneous mutation of the NF gene. NF1 occurs in 1 in every 3,000 births around the world. There is no cure, although drugs are currently in development that may help slow and/or reduce certain tumor growths.

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Hiking on Mt. Emei.

Back in October I noticed a social media post from the Children’s Tumor Foundation (CTF), a non-profit organization aimed at raising funds for research of all NF-related disorders, raising awareness, and patient support. A big gala fundraiser was approaching, and they wanted selfies from the NF community to use during the event.

I had just returned from a fantastic hike on Mt. Emei and emailed my selfie on the mountain, adding that I was in China with the Peace Corps. The PR-manager thought that was great and asked if I would write a personal story for their website. You can read the post here. In fact, when I sat down to write my story, I took inspiration from an original post on this blog, On Disfigurement and Grace.

When I applied to the Peace Corps and accepted the invitation to serve, I knew the medical clearance process was going to be a challenge—as it is for many of us. But I knew I would have the additional challenge of seeing specialists to document the disease and support me that I was healthy enough to serve with these tumors. I’m grateful for supportive specialists and the medical insurance that allowed me access to them.

It is true that every day when I look in the mirror, it’s a challenge to go outside. But as you can read on this blog and elsewhere, I choose to live and do that which gives me life. I’m proud to be serving in the Peace Corps and happy to have traveled all over the world.

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Thanksgiving

One of the stressful things about living abroad is missing holidays and celebrations of the home country. It is a joy to engage and learn new things, but there’s often a longing to return to the familiar. Although I’m not surrounded by the holiday traditions from the USA, I can share them and make do with what’s around me now. Last month I shared Thanksgiving and this month soon will be Christmas.

During the week before Thanksgiving, I taught students in class about the holiday and participated in several events with students and friends to celebrate. We gathered with students to make dumplings, we had dinner with more students, and then I hosted other Peace Corps Volunteers for our own Thanksgiving meal featuring chicken, mac n cheese, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and more–including a pumpkin pie I made from scratch.

The evening of Thanksgiving when myself and a few other foreign teachers gathered around a table with students, we ate and chatted. Then we went around the table to say what we were thankful for. it was a moment of honesty. One student used the image of a train. People get on and off as passengers, sometimes just quickly passing through each other’s lives, but friends are in it together for the long journey. What an amazing reflection.

With a grateful heart I give thanks for life and friends.

Dubbing Competition

Some things at Chinese universities are cemented into the rhythm of the school calendar such as department welcome events for freshmen (I missed this year’s because of a scheduling miscommunication), speech competitions, and sports meets. Well, the Foreign Language Department hosting dubbing competitions is no different.

Last year the competition took me by surprise, with everything being new (see my post on “rolling with it“). This year, however, I knew what I was in for, and still enjoyed it.

The highlight of the night was one of my freshmen students winning the competition all by herself. Normally the students dub over movie clips in groups, but this young woman went solo—a courageous undertaking in this place.

She dubbed over anime in Japanese, nailing the voices and, although I don’t personally speak Japanese, seemed fairly accurate (my American colleague who learned some in college thought it was spot on). As a judge, I was blown away, and as a teacher I was certainly proud (her English is good, too, but like most her age she is shy about speaking). Somehow, she learned either to speak it or imitate the language well. English majors here have to learn another language, but they don’t start that until their sophomore year.

I hope she’ll progress that well in English, too.