Tonight, my rusted red chain fell off my gears twice as I biked from
the Russian district to Alfa’s 80s night. I had pedaled through the
starry night with my bike squeaking away, tires deflated and bell
decapitated, over dusty construction sites and behind rickshaws
stacked with four inch four pound plastic bags of paper to be
recycled. I was taking my bike back from my office, as I had biked to
work yesterday morning, as each pedal a struggle. Either I was
physically tired, my tires were flat, or my gears were jammed.
Something wasn’t right.
I must have realized that my bike was getting sick days ago, when I
let the bell go unmended. The top part, which the hammer hits to let
it ring, had fallen off, exposing Swiss watch style gearing. I liked
to watch the gears whirl in the hollow casing, unable to make a sound.
But I didn’t fix it, that broken bell, even though the bell is the
most important part of a bike, in my mind. So I wet my lips and
whistled my way through the streets of Beijing. I pretended that was
But really, in letting the bell stay broken, I was giving up on my
bike. It was time: the metal guard that protects the gears catches
on my pant cuffs and warps out like aluminum foil over a campfire;
the chain turns brighter shades of orange with each passing rainfall;
the inner tubes have both been repaired, and the brakes were fully
replaced the first week; the splash guard against the front wheel is
bent out of shape; and even the “I <3 NY" sticker that makes this bike mine is battered and nicked. And so as I put my gloved hands on the handlebars and guided my broken bike behind Workers Stadium to a marginally safer place tonight, I was finally forced to ask the question I had been avoiding for so long: do I continue to fix my bike, or do I just give it up and buy a new one? The West, as a friend of mine recently boasted, has undergone the Renaissance, and hence enjoys the triumph of Reason. So being a product of my culture, my first answers to this question are all rational ones: "Of course, Liz, it makes sense to buy a new bike. This bike is a crappy bike. It'll cost more time, and even more money, to repair than to replace. You ride it all the time, Liz. You aren't a student anymore; you work and have a salary and can afford to spend $50 on a new bike, an upgrade from the $30 you spent on this one. Just buy a new bike!" But it's not that easy. As I tuck my bike into a safe corner spot next to a post, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of loyalty to this bike, for the places its taken me, for the way it has always been waiting for me when I get off work, or want to go out, or have errands to run. It's been a great friend to me. Part of me cannot ignore the power of nostalgia, for caring for things that have been good and important. As I chained my bike to its resting place, I worried about my principles, about my capacity to care for and be loyal to things that I love and that need compassion. But it's more than a bizarre anthropomorphic love for a rusted inanimate object. When I was in Russia during my junior term abroad, I careless threw a wet towel on a wooden chair. My host sister yelled at me in words I'll never forget: "You Americans don't take care of things! We Russians," she added with self-loathing, "we have to live with what we have, so we take care of things, and we fix them. We don't just throw things out and buy news things, like you Americans do." So one country over, I wonder if I am one of those Americans who just abandons things that are broken, and buys new. I am embarrassed to feel like I'm selling out to the most American of attributes: the rational decision to buy functioning new things instead of caring for failing old things. "Buy new" is the essence of our great nation. America was after all founded by people who, instead of reforming the country they were in, decided to start a new one. It's why America's consumption of goods drives the world economy, and why we outsource troubleshooting (i.e. tech repair) to India and car repairs to immigrants. America's ability to abandon the past in search of something new, something better, has let it plow forward unshackled by history to dominate the world. Indeed, discarding broken things is the essence of progress, or at least a prerequisite. Progress hasn't always been the status quo either. For so many centuries, and still in so many ways, respecting one's ancestors, following traditions and passing down cultural baggage from one generation to the next have been the hallmarks of society. But in places like America, that respect for the past has changed, and marks a shift in the history of human events. The American Dream has led us beyond prehistory and history, and into post-history: we no longer look back, as that keeps up from paying attention to where we are going. So tonight, I am stuck with a rusted bike on my hands, and a concrete decision to make about what to do with it. There's still time to change the course of future events. I could save my bike still. But I know what will happen now. The decision was made long ago, when I accepted the fundamental values of progress and reason, even before I stopped caring about the half-naked bell lying purposeless on my handlebars, the gears whirling in complex coordination, making no sound.