One of my biggest frustrations was being told by the tour guides of the various cultural attractions what I could and could not do. Tours are highly regulated and tour guides were less guides and more commanders. Herding us this way and that. Forbidding us from taking one different step from the group. I was never allowed to be far from the herd. Wandering off was something people did not do. Exploring was out of the question.
So imagine my surprise when Alice announced that we would have a free afternoon. We could do whatever we wanted. Alice offered to lead a group to the Beijing Zoo and all of the members of the college group I was with signed up. I couldn't bear it. More herding into buses and being led through an attraction as part of a routine rather than I real experience in China. So I asked Alice if I could borrow her bike and go for a ride. If you have ever been to Beijing, you know that the streets are almost paved with bicycles. Chinese commute by bicycle in a way that makes the puny bicycle commuting in our towns seem quaint. Everyone there owns and rides thier bikes all over the city. I was in awe of the massive display of bikes and wanted to ride in one of them.
Alice gladly lent me her bike and when another member of our group announced she wanted to ride too, Alice borrowed a bike from a friend for her, and we were able to set off through the streets. My riding companion was a delightful undergraduate by the name of Dionne who happened to be African American and wore long beaded braids in her hair. I mention this only because Dionne and I, the black girl and the white girl, riding through the streets of Beijing was just not something people there saw very often. My the heads did turn. I remember we made it to a kind of tea shop and then a department store and stopped to shop and then turned around and rode back. I have never regretted my decision not to go to the zoo that day. I will always remember that time of doing something that felt like what every Chinese man and woman was doing even if it was only for a few hours.
It occurs to me now too, seeing these pictures of myself for the first time in over 15 years, that another reason the Chinese stare is because Americans are large people. I would imagine that I will feel a bit like an Amazon again when roaming the streets of China with my family in tow.