With handlebars wobbling and heart pounding, I pushed my foot down on the pedal, easing my way out into the flowing river of whizzing bicycles and motorbikes. Adrenalin pumped a laser focus to my brain. My students formed a protective bubble around me on their bikes, motioning with their hands to tell me where to go. They could see that this form of transportation was utterly foreign to me. They saw my well-being as their responsibility and were as nervous as I was.
But their desire to show me the wonders of their city outweighed their fear, or at least motivated them risk bringing an American college girl out on the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam. We wove our through the streets, traffic whipping around us. I shook my head to clear the voice that kept saying, “If your parents could see you now…”
We made our way to a quieter street alongside a lake. Our little herd of bicycles spread out across the road and we all exhaled. Laughter bubbled up as blood began flowing back into my white knuckles.
Sun filtered through the trees lining the streets. We pumped our legs faster, creating a breeze to dry our damp skin. I looked around wondering if this was my real life or if I had somehow been transported into a movie.
Perhaps it was the adrenaline, but from the perch of this bicycle seat, the world seemed perfect in that moment. There was nowhere else I’d rather be, nothing else I’d rather be doing. It was one of those pure joy, I-don’t-want-this-to-end kind of experiences.
Something about moving through that place, with these people, made me feel a deep sense of connection with them. The simple act of getting from one place to another was a uniquely bonding experience.
Flash forward a dozen years, and I’m on the seat of another bike, in another bustling city in Asia. My bike is a three-wheeled electric bike with two benches in the back covered by green canvas. (See a pic in the Instagram feed below). It is about as un-cool as you can get in a mode of transportation. I love it.
We had it custom built for our family. It was a huge process to find and figure out because no one understood why anyone would want such a thing. Clearly they never had tried to cajole three small children to walk to a bus stop, or begged a taxi driver to take your family of five, or hefted a stroller onto a bus, or carried that stroller up a huge flight of subway stairs with said small children in tow.
Our family didn’t fit the culture of a one-child policy country. This bike was our loophole. This bike was my freedom. In it I could go places with just the kids and me. We’d strap them in the back with luggage belts. Or I could go by myself and fit a large load of groceries.
I loved our bike for the practicality of it. But I loved it for more than that. There was something about it that tapped the same deep sense of joy I found on the streets of Hanoi. Riding through the city brought a sense of amazement and gratitude that I get to live this life. Weaving in and out of traffic gave me a sense of oneness with the culture. On days when I was bundled in a big hooded coat and a pollution mask, I could almost ride by in anonymity, no longer the foreigner.
That bike wasn’t all happy and dreamy. We had it stolen and had to buy/build a new one. It required a ridiculously heavy battery that had to be hefted onto a dolly and wheeled up to our apartment to charge almost daily. I once scratched the bumper of a BMW and had to beg the owner to not call the police.
Asians and fellow-expats (my husband included) thought I was crazy to drive that thing. But I loved it. Despite the hassles, it was one of my favorite parts of our life. When I get those random flash memories of my China life now, it’s often of scenes and street corners viewed from the perch of my bike seat.
Our cross-cultural lives are full of paradox, and transportation is certainly one of them. Transportation makes our lives both stressful and beautiful, frustrating and fun, dangerous and exhilarating, time-consuming and memorable.
Let’s open it up here at The Grove and share our transportation stories. We want to hear them! We know we’ve all got a transportation story. Share it in the comments below, or on Instagram with #velvetashestransportation, or link up your blog post!
Here’s our Instagram collection from this week using #VelvetAshesTransportation. You can add yours!