Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Bike-Buying 101

After five weeks of pedestrian-living, you've decided to take your next step towards independence and buy a bike! Congratulations! Here is a step-by-step guide to purchasing and maintaining your vehicle in Chengdu:

1. Mention your desire for a bike to any and all open ears. Wait.

2. Hear tell of the "bike bridge" from another expat who heard it from a friend who hear about it from some guy on a bus...

3. Go to said "bike bridge" between the hours of 4 and 6pm on any weekday. Do not arrive early. Do not arrive late.

4. You will not see any bikes. You will not see any people, for that matter. Don't let this bother you, and don't make any sudden movements. Just stand on a corner with that certain je ne sais quoi "I want to buy a bike" look in your eyes. If you feel compelled, mime a biking motion every few minutes to catch the attention of no one in particular.

5. Psst!, you will hear from a bush behind you. Turn around, and you'll notice five men sitting in some bushes and playing cards. Without looking you in the eye, they'll ask the secret pass-question "Ni yao mei zi xing che ma?" (you want to buy a bike?). To which you give your secret pass-code response "Yao." (yup, I do.)

6. The card men will tell you to walk the other way across the street. Do as they say, and find yourself once again surrounded by nothing in particular with no one in particular ready to sell you a bike. Stop. Wait.

7. A pink polo-shirted man will approach you and once again ask the secret question. With your confirmation, he'll lead you down the street to a parking lot where 20 rusted bikes are lined up next to playground equipment. Now you're getting close!

8. Pink Polo will point to the most expensive (least rusted) of the lot and tell you it is the only one for sale today. His friends (4 others who have appeared and begun to play on the playground equipment) will gather and make suggestions on the price-points of other bikes, which all magically become "for sale" once you express enough interest.

9. Choose an ok-looking bike (only semi-rusty, with a basket), and spend the next five to twenty-five minutes haggling over the price, whether "cost of living" has increased recently, and whether that is a good excuse for Pink Polo to charge more than $15 for an old, probably stolen bike. If it gets tiring, hang out on the playground equipment and wait for the prices to drop.

10. Pay $10. Know you've been had, but smile and shake hands anyway, since the playground equipment made the experience a little more fun. Buy a bike-lock ASAP, but not from them. (where do you think all these bikes came from?)

11. Congratulations! You've bought a bike from the Chengdu Bike Mafia. Ride off into the sunset while checking the brakes.

(11.5 Look for the bike-lot the next day and see that it is completely empty. Pink Polo is gone, as are the card men and the playground loiterers. Was it all a dream? Think about this as the brakes give out while you are riding through traffic.)

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Meg In Journalism!

The movers and shakers at Abroad View Magazine have invited me to join the ranks of their global team of citizen journalists with a monthly column of my own! Here's a taste:

When discussing gender roles with with my Peul Bande father, I asked him:
"Are women good with money?"

"No, of course not," he said.

"Who is in charge of the communal village collection system?" I asked.

"My wife! She is the president of the women's society."

"And what funded the new machinery in the peanut field?"

"The women’s communal pot. The women decided to buy the machinery."

"And have the machines improved the condition of life here?"

"Yes. They have brought in more money."

"Are women good with money?"

"No. Women are not intelligent."

Intrigued by this obvious dichotomy in thought and by the enormous power the village women had begun to harness with their rotating lending system, I asked more questions...

Read on...

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Ad Hoc Diplomacy

A note on 9-11:

Two years ago, I spent the annivesary of September 11th in a Muslim nation.
This year, I spend it watching Nuclear-armed North Korea play the Attacking-Iraq U.S. team in the Women's World Cup, here in Communist Chengdu, China.

It's all a matter of perspective.
Rather, one might say that two years ago I spent the day of September 11th discussing international relations with Senegalese housewives and unemployed uncles while sitting on a rooftop and looking at the stars. I learned that they did not view the U.S. negatively per se, but they did have the unmistakable feeling that as Muslims their beliefs might not be welcomed in my country. I told them their instincts may be right. This year, I will sit in a stadium and watch two groups of female athletes - who, outside of this stadium are politically unable to interact - meet and play with one another. Football (soccer) may be the name of the game, but I see an ongoing diplomacy project. From a Senegalese rooftop to a Chinese turf, ad-hoc diplomacy is my true way of commemorating this day.

On Saturday I was deeply humbled.
A single trip to Xian He to meet with the villagers who we will be microfinancing this year was enough to snap me out of my dazed space of solo cultural-immersion and chinese learning. It's been easy to forget why exactly I am here, in the midst of practicing tones and losing myself in vegetable markets. This weekend, I remembered.

I am here to witness choice.

This past weekend, I watched villagers come together in their newly-built community room to decide collectively how they would like to build their future. One group made a grid of crops and animal husbandry seasons, checking off each month when an animal or crop needed particular attention. It became clear that July through September were busy months for harvesting and husbandry. Ok, they said, we'll focus on things we can do in October.

I am here to listen.

Another group was made up of the elders of the village. They talked more slowly and deliberately, naming each year of the past twenty and ticking off the historic events of note. I was struck by how many of the technological advances that the US gradually received over one hundred years had arrived within a mere twenty (or ten).

1983 - Electricity
1999 - Telephones
2001- Satelite TV
2003 - The construction of the village road
2007 - Clean Water what kind of a situation does satelite tv arrive before roads and water, I wondered. It sounds backwards to me. Perhaps I was backwards for needing to ask.

I am here to support.

Seeing a white face at the village meeting was certainly startling for most of the villagers, and exciting too. With my presence came the words "international" and "support." Though I felt very much the fish-out-of-water in the meeting, it was apparent that fitting in wasn't my job.
Without words, my presence suggested a deeper level of support and care than a simple check could do. I was there not just as a funder, but as a participant, a support, another warm body in the room to sit in a chair and say "Yes. I want to be here for this. I wouldn't miss it for the world."

I am here to write it down.

I've struggled during the last few weeks with wanting to blog, but feeling too shy to sit down and do it. I know I've missed things, and a nagging voice in me tells me that I shouldn't write until I'm ready to get it all down, once and for all. I'm getting over it. I know I haven't written about my birthday yet (it was wonderful, thank you! We made dumplings with my host-family and then went bowling. I had no idea that a mid-western-esque bowling alley full of shiny pink and orange balls sat kitty-corner to one of my favorite hot-pot places...China is indeed full of surprises), and I know that there are extroardinary cultural moments that haven't yet made their way onto the blog (the chinese word for "good" is literally woman+son. Or rather, "goodness" can be defined as a woman having a son. More on what words say about culture later), yes, moments will be lost.

Yes, yes, yes.
Knowing all this, I am in the process of swallowing my pride and accepting that this will be an incredibly imperfect document. That aside, I'm here to get the word out about rural community, development, and life in modern China. Thus, I sit. I write. I share.

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