Back in Beijing- Pizza and Generosity

In the morning we visited the Puning Temple, in the same compound as our hotel. The main attraction was in a large, Buddhist temple overlooking the compound. When you enter this building, you immediately realize why it is a popular tourist spot, as all you can see is the big toe of the world’s largest wooden Buddha, weighing in at 110 tons and reaching 68.4 feet high. The entirety of the Buddha is encased within this ornate 5 tier temple-building, is made of 5 types of wood, and is incredibly impressive.

Puning Temple Buddha

Shortly thereafter we got on the buses and headed back towards Beijing. We got back in the late afternoon, and someone…somewhere, said “pizza.” Tony and I overheard the word and couldn’t get it out of our heads, after a solid week of nothing but Chinese food, pizza was what we wanted…what we needed. So, we set out in search of a pizza place. A friend told us that he had heard there was one just outside the east gate, and so to the east gate we went. We walked awhile in both directions with no luck. Tony had a bike and went ahead to scout out the area, calling me 20 minutes later. He had searched down the main road for awhile and finally found a pizza place; he ordered and paid for the pizza—90 yuan. It would be another 25 minutes until it was ready, and so he came back because we had to pick up our Chinese language books from the program director. After 20 minutes had passed, we were back on campus, had gotten our books, and were ready to go get the pizza.

We were starving, and the situation was growing ever-more complicated; Tony had a bike, and his apartment was very close to the pizza place. I had to find a taxi to get there, which would otherwise be a 30 minute walk. Another 20 minutes go by—no taxi. I started resorting to looking for old, left-to-rot bikes but to my surprise, out of the thousands lying around, all of them had locks—even the ones that had roots growing in them! It seemed that all the bikes that appeared to be forgotten indeed all had owners. We were getting desperate now; no taxis were anywhere on campus and it was an hour after we had ordered the pizza… we were starving.

With morale at an all time low, and seemingly no options to speak of, I decided in the moment to go over to a man who was in the process of locking up his bike, and ask if I could borrow it. I got his attention, and asked him in severely broken, circuitous Chinese if I could use his bike, holding up money as an incentive. After a few floundering moments which involved more pointing and full-body acting than a game of charades, he understood what I was asking for. It was clear that he didn’t speak English, although he mustered a broken reply to the extent of, “I don’t want your money.” And what’s even more astonishing is that he agreed to it! This random guy that I walked up to on the street was actually agreeing to let me borrow his bike, and we really couldn’t communicate to each other outside of hand signals! I was blown away as he started to unlock his bike and started un-linking the keys to his locks off his keychain! I gave him my Peking University student ID, to let him know I would be coming back but I don’t think he fully understood at first. With limited Chinese, I gave him my phone number, and he told me that he would call me after work.

Stunned and stammering “xie xie’s,” I watched the twenty-five or so year old walk into an adjacent building. I turned to Tony and he just shook his head in disbelief at what had just transpired. Still unsure of what I had just agreed to and whether or not he understood, we hopped on our bikes and rode off into Beijing.

We flowed in harmony with the hundreds of bikes, swarming through intersections and roads amid the droves of people; it was seemingly chaotic yet everyone is so used to it that the sea of people and vehicles never seem to be at odds. After a harrowing commute, we arrived at the blessed pizza place, leaving our bikes among the jumbled heap of scooters and bicycles found on every street corner. We ran in for our long-anticipated Western-fix. Hand sanitizer had been properly applied (as before any meal) and we were prepared for our feast. The waitress came over and put a 8 inch pizza between us. On the street, you can have a decently sized meal for up to 10 Yuan, and 90 Yuan at a pizza place couldn’t even come close to filling us up. Considering all that we did in order to reach our pizza, it was somewhat disappointing, although at that point any food was worth celebrating.

Me and "my" bike

Me and "my" bike

After finishing our meal—3 minutes later—I had decided I needed to show my new bicycle-lending friend my gratitude. After some discussion, I decided giving him money would skew his benevolent deed, as was probably his reasoning earlier. I instead wanted to give him something more thoughtful than money in return for his generosity, towards a foreigner no less. I had realized during our journey to the pizza place, while dodging passers-by, that I had no bell. The efficacy of having one is debatable; there is a continuous cacophony of bells and horns from the bustling traffic over which, I would imagine, my own would not be audible most of the time…but nonetheless I decided it was the perfect gift.

As we plucked our bikes from the cluster, a woman came running over us demanding money. Initially we thought she was a beggar asking for loose change but we soon realized she was actually an official collecting dues for parking our bikes. Here we were, among hundreds of bikes and carts left on the sidewalk in disarray, and yet there was in fact a system behind this apparent chaos. We had to pay one Jiao (a 10th of a Yuan) per bike.

(As an aside, $1 USD is worth approximately 6.8 Yuan and therefore 100 Yuan (China’s largest bill) is about $14.5 USD; Kuai is another way to refer to money and is equivalent with Yuan.) Tony and I rode around the streets of Beijing, periodically stopping to ask a stranger for directions to the nearest bicycle shop (in the best Chinese we could muster).

One Jiao

One Yuan

We rode around without finding a shop and eventually stopped to ask this old man for directions; he was sitting under a make-shift lean-to, next to a row of bicycles he had for rent. We pointed to the bells on his bikes to demonstrate what we were looking for and we exchanged some simple phrases with him about finding a bike store until he stood up and, with a huge smile on his face, started yelling “Beawl!” “Beawl!” We didn’t know what the word was in Chinese, and just kind of watched as he walked away. He motioned for us to follow, and he brought us over to his bikes and asked me to pick out one—he had been saying “bell,” apparently the only English word he knew. I pointed to the shiniest one in the line-up, and he got out a tool and took it off his bike, then and there, and mounted it on mine. I handed him a few Yuan and he smiled and gestured his thanks with a bob of his head. I said thank you in return, and with a shared wave, we headed off.

The Bell

Tony went back to his apartment and I headed back to campus, still trying to grasp the unbelievable situation I found myself in. I got back to my room, and polished the bell till it looked good as new and gave it a few brrings to check that it worked. I couldn’t wait to see the look on this man’s face when I handed him back the bike. A few hours later, he called me on the phone and I headed back to where we had met. As I pulled up, there he was, standing on the sidewalk with his briefcase in hand, waiting. I got off and handed him his locks and keys, and showed him the bell I had bought for his bike. He almost looked confused for a moment, and upon realizing what I had done, he bowed his head and said “xie xie” in rapid fire. I in turn thanked him for his generosity and found out his name—Jiangwuxing. We parted ways and I started walking back through the streets toward my dorm, thankful and stupefied that I had had such an experience.

Later that night I received a text in Chinese from Jiangwuxing saying that anytime I wanted to use a bike, to call him, and that he was happy to have met a new friend.

I was too.

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2 Comments on “Back in Beijing- Pizza and Generosity”

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    John, love this story. So sweet!

  2. amanda Says:

    Your mom gave me your blog-loved reading this story. Sounds like you are having an amazing time. Generosity and trust crosses all cultures. Be well and update the blog!

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