I lived in China for two years and almost died a few times. Mostly because I did a lot of jay-running across urban intersections, with the city buses hurtling around. It was like being in the asteroid field in The Empire Strikes Back. I dug it, rushing through the sprawls, because at that point I perceived life as being just a small step removed from an action movie. Good thing I was young and immortal, and that nothing bad ever happens to young white people. Bad things only happened to other people. My buddy Cameron was on a bus when it hit a guy in the crosswalk at thirty-five m.p.h. and killed him. City workers had to come spray the blood off the windows, and then they just kept on driving. Rush hour’s a bitch.
I was a teacher in the southern city of Shenzhen. It’s China’s geographical equivalent of Miami. I woke up at my friend’s place near the Hong Kong border and had to get across town to teach my classes. A typhoon had touched down during the night and Shenzhen was drowning. The rain battered the city in sheets. Long-tailed rats surfed down the gutters.
And I was under the gun. I’d hit snooze too many times and that left me only thirty minutes to get across two districts to my school. No way in hell was I going to be able to flag a taxi, but I didn’t need one. I’d just bought a hybrid bike as a traffic hack.
I geared up and pushed my bike west, away from the big Dongmen market and over to the bank towers. I was sliding around corners and spewing up a rooster tail of rainwater behind me. Some of the puddles were already a foot deep and the downpour just kept coming. I’d never seen a storm quite this belligerent. The world was just a gray and black blob and I had less than ten feet of visibility. My hands kept slipping when I tried to squeeze the brakes. It was a tropical storm. Shenzhen is where the jungle is supposed to be, but they just cut the jungle down and poured concrete all over it.
Slow going, but I was covering ground. Burning up the distance. Being on two wheels in a megacity gives you a superpower. The only better way to get around is via helicopter. No subway transfers or frittering away your existence in apocalyptic traffic jams. And in the big cities there’s always a traffic jam. Shenzhen, especially, was constantly turning itself inside out. Because it has fourteen million people and they’ve all got somewhere to be. They’re all on the buses or shoehorned into nightclub-packed subway cars. Meanwhile, I believed myself to be above the common man. Set apart. So I mashed pedals in the bus lanes and cut through the heart of the city on the boulevards. I liked riding through the chaos. Weaving through markets and the hot blast of bus exhaust. You’re not allowed to do all of that. You’re supposed to stay in-bounds on the sidewalk bike lanes. But I felt pretty certain that the traffic cops wouldn’t confront and arrest a white person. And I was right. Probably because they assumed I’d just get smashed by a vehicle eventually. And they were right.
I kept riding. My iPod earbuds got soaked and cut out. But I was having fun. Riding free through a sky-splitting storm. I knew the alleys and ramps to cut around the interchanges. Along the way a black car hydroplaned and crashed into a bus stop. I dodged it. I liked China because getting to work was an adventure. Just a step removed from Mad Max. This was the Wild Wild East, and I had come up in a seaside town in New Hampshire where it was just me and 20,000 other white people. There was nothing to do there. It wasn’t until I left the country that I realized that life’s default setting wasn’t “boring.”
I was back in my district. Not far from the Foxconn factories where they make all the iPads. This was 2012 and the story had just broken that they had to install nets to stop the exploited workers from swan-diving off the roof.
I was riding under a bridge and slanted around the hood of a red car that was trying to weave through the vendors and schoolkids, who were all taking cover from the sky like this was the London Blitz.
I was going to be late. I stood up in the saddle and pumped faster. I broke out of the bridge tunnel and leaned into a left turn. And then there was a rumble and a splash from behind me and the red car sideswiped me. My tire hit the curb and the bike jumped over it. I launched out of the saddle and and hit the guardrail. I had so much momentum that I just rode along the top of it for a few yards. It slit my jeans open. Then I landed in the bushes and came down on my back in a slick of mud.
I heard the car rev up disappear around the next block. I lay there and let the rain hit me like millions of little bullets. The mud was sucking me into the ground but I didn’t move. I was pretty sure my right leg was broken. It was the first part of my body that hit the guardrail. I didn’t look at it.
Maybe the driver of the red car hit me on purpose, maybe not. Maybe he was annoyed at how I’d cut him off. Maybe he just took the turn too fast and didn’t see me. But either way there was no way he was going to stop after I crashed.
In China, if you take someone to the hospital, you have to pay for their bills. So there’s a lot of hit and runs. Or hit-and-kills. It’s happened a number of times where the driver will back up and roll back over the person they just hit to make sure they actually died. Because if you cripple someone, you have to pay for their care for a lifetime. Kill someone and you can just tell the cops you thought the person was a bag of trash or something. Get a light court sentence and just pay a one-time burial fee.
And there are a lot of blind eyes turned. I’d just read a story of a four year-old girl who got hit by a minivan in nearby Foshan. CCTV cameras caught eighteen people stepping over her as she bled out. The Wild Wild East.
I crawled up the slope to high ground but it took a while. Like I’d just gotten gassed in no man’s land and was trying to wriggle away from death. Eventually I managed to lean on the guardrail. My right thigh felt like it had been hit with a cannonball.
My bike was ten feet away and two guys were trying to take it. I shouted at them and they disappeared into the squall.
I got an X-ray and my injury turned out to just be a bone bruise. I had to stop exercising and within a week I looked like every other fat western exile. The expat diet in China includes a lot of greasy dumplings and incredible amounts of cheap, cheap beer. So I staged a comeback on the bike nine days later. And I wiped out again when I tried to get cute by slicing between cars at a red light. This time it was absolutely my fault. I crashed head-on into a baluster and cracked a rib. Most people would have learned a lesson at that point but I’m the kind of guy who needs to experience the same painful consequence a good half-dozen times.
But it my last consequence. Two weeks after my second crash, the bike disappeared. I’d locked it at my school with all the other students’ bikes but one morning it just wasn’t there. Somehow, someone had taken it. Even though the campus was sealed off from the city by twelve-foot fences.
The school security officer showed me the footage of what happened. It was a heist. One night two Chinese men out on the sidewalk saw my bike, nodded to each other and just climbed over the fence to get it. They were really thin, rangy guy with holes in their shirts. They picked the lock and climbed back up over the fence while they were carrying the bike. The whole job took about forty-five seconds. I was a little too impressed to be angry. And in the back of my mind I knew that they might have saved my life. It was a necessary intervention.
That’s how my bike became an involuntary donation to the Shenzhen Pickpocket Fund. I’d only owned it for about six weeks before it got jacked. I hope maybe the thieves were Foxconn workers who scored a huge payday. Be careful with it, guys. I think it’s cursed.