Many of us will never know what it's like be be uprooted from home. The home we were born into, or the home we made for ourselves.
Even if it's not perfect. Even if it's wrong for us.
It's how we live. Sometimes it's all we know.
And then, when it's gone, it's a strange thing to think back on. Because it's a part of us that's gone, and then there's the question — my home is over there, but I'm still here. Am I still me?
I think that sometimes you can lose track of the person that you are, the human. The authentic human you are. Somewhere in the middle you eventually realize that you have to go backwards to find this person again.
Usually I try to put the deep thoughts at the end. "In summary,..." or something like that.
But with Donna, the deep thoughts come fast and furious. She's that kind of person, the kind of person you meet at work, but more than just a co-worker; the kind of person you can actually connect with at that deeper level.
When I first met Donna at HUB Cycling, I immediately noticed both a kindness and a finely-tuned BS filter, some weird combination of emotional and creative intelligence, and a vulnerability that (perhaps) makes all that good, deep stuff possible in the first place.
It all grew out of an earlier time, in another place.
I was born and raised in Beijing in the eighties and early nineties.
It's a huge city. Nobody really owned cars back when I was growing up. Back in the day, it was only the rich of the rich had cars or drivers for their cars, and then there were lots of cabs on the street. And buses.
At the time I was growing up, bikes were the major transportation vehicle for people. Any plaza or centre square had tons of bike parking. Everywhere you go there are tents and racks for you to lock up your bikes.
All the arterials streets had separated bike lanes — big huge wide separated lanes specifically on the street for bicycles, going both ways. So when you cross the street, you cross a huge wide bike lane, as in tons of people — thousands of people would be riding every morning to go to work, and thousands back.
Every street had that. Now it's mostly disappeared. They took them out and replaced them with more vehicles.
If you're a city-dweller, think of your life. Likely it resembles nothing like the Beijing of 30 years ago, and more like the Beijing of today.
Few people growing up in today's Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto or Halifax experiences the everyday dangers in the same raw format Donna experienced as a child, just getting around day-to-day.
As a kid, there wasn't really such a thing as traffic laws unfortunately, so you learn how to jaywalk from a very young age on. You had to navigate literally a huge-ass lane, I'd say maybe two-lane traffic for bikes, and then you got maybe four or six lanes, up to eight lanes of car traffic, and then another two huge lanes of bikes going the opposite way.
This was life, and nobody really questioned in.
Nobody was used to questioning very much in China in the Communist era then, and even today. But back in the late 1980s, despite the slight loosening of single-party control over everyday life, the very idea of questioning the status quo was an especially dangerous endeavour.
While advocates in Vancouver were wringing their hands over road space and the prioritization of the car, Donna and her family ended up bearing witness to one of the 20th century's great tragedies. It was one fought over competing cultural ideologies on a national scale, and within a widening geo-political battleground. And with great bloodshed.
To be an activist at that time in China, especially in Beijing and for an entire generation of students and academics, was to risk your life, and perhaps those of your family members.
Protests led to martial law and use of force. Competing narratives speak of hundreds of deaths; international agencies estimate closer to 10,000.
There had been the '89 Tiananmen Square massacre. That entire democracy movement put China at the centre of attention, in terms of it not catching up to what it could be, especially the open door policy in the '80s.
There was this particular sentiment for people who lived in China —having witnessed and experienced and lived through this particular shutdown, this really demoralizing, traumatic experience — that there really isn't any place for families to sustain themselves through any type of activism.
So I think that drilled into a lot of people, "just live your life, do not dig your heels into politics, do not be involved in any of this stuff. Take care of your own, and call it a day."
Immigration from China to Canada doubled in the early-to-mid nineties; the aftershocks of Tiananmen Square did little damage to the growing Chinese economy, and combined with combined with the Canadian recession, many Chinese considered this time an ideal doorway into a new life in the west. Donna's parents stepped through it.
My parents were teachers. I think that may have informed some values or particular ideas around next generation opportunities, choices that they could make, or particular paths that they could build for themselves, rather than "here is a chosen path for you. This is how it's going to look like."
As any immigrant, as any newcomer, there was idealism on their part — of what it would be like coming here, to a country that they feel like is more of a refuge than their own.
The changes. Language, laws, customs — so much to adjust to. And many were of the type we might never think of.
I lived in Burnaby. There were some very significant differences.
Community — that was one huge thing that was missing from my life. It was super-fucking quiet all the time. I was paranoid by that point. I couldn't sleep at night because it was so quiet.
And I don't mean 'community' within my age group, but just community in the sense of people gathering places. People talking. People chilling out after dinner.
Don't get me wrong, this is not a criticism of North American life. This is a cultural difference. Growing up in Beijing, you talk to strangers. Vancouver is Vancouver, but even Vancouver doesn't really have a focus on public spaces. And so that's the difference in some ways.
Ways of moving around the city were more obviously different. Donna had come from a country where everybody biked. And here?
I was like okay, this is just not what we do here. In my teenage brain, it's sort of like, right, here's a country where everybody drives, taken as a fact, just a given.
I remember in the late nineties until the 2000s, maybe I saw five cyclists with their road bikes and with their helmet on. And I remembered always, the first few times when I saw the helmet, "why are they wearing those hats? What's happening? What the hell is going on?"
OK, so this is how people do this here, there's no way that I'm doing this.
Fast forward through high school, then SFU, and finally into the working world. Donna looked around and realized she had a chance to once again remake her life, but this time on her terms.
All of a sudden I'm like, "oh yeah, I'm in the city...oh a lot more people are riding". And I thought, "can I even remember how to ride a bike?" Because, for the longest time I felt like I won't remember how to ride a bike. Seriously, there was that fear.
The last time I had ridden a bike was when I was sixteen. Ten years later....
Despite being given a bike by a boyfriend, riding it didn't immediately go from idea to reality. ("I literally left it in the garage for half a year and didn't ride it. Because I was like, fuck this shit, I don't remember how to ride it.") It needed to percolate for a while.
Donna even considered selling the bike, unsure how to make it her own, to actually use it. But then one day...
"I thought, "Oh you know what I'm just going to take it for a ride, and then we're going to sell it." Great. So I took it for a spin, and I'm like, "I remember how to ride, this is amazing!"
I kept it. It was great. That was the bike I rode taking a VACC Streetwise course with Mary.
Mary, of course, from elsewhere in this blog.
But also Mary the fellow immigrant. Someone from someplace else, not caught up in Vancouver's need to fetishize the bicycle in order to justify its role.
This is just a thought, but it strikes me that, at the very least, someone like Mary might have helped remind Donna that she too, was someone different, from somewhere else, with entirely alien approach to moving through a totally, incidentally, bike-friendly city.
I feel like there is a particular perspective of newcomers when it comes to cycling. We don't fall into it because there are all of these things around it.
It's a lot less socially driven. It's definitely not about exercise. Trust me, I enjoy the exercise. It wasn't even as much for fun.
Specifically it was for utility. It was for getting to places faster, it was for being cheaper. Part of that is because of lack of funds to have a motor vehicle. Because the lack of time to be taking transit, waiting for transit.
I feel like I fell into cycling in a very different way, because of what it did for me. Internally driven.
The fun came afterwards. The freedom came afterwards. All of that stuff came afterwards.
Actually, a lot of stuff came afterwards. Such as Donna's life in cycling advocacy, as a program manager with HUB, as well as a long-term, part-time instructor gig that has kept her in touch with the joy of discovery, and in some cases, rediscovery.
I go into schools and teach kids this stuff. There's no class where they fail to think about it being faster, cheaper, eco-friendly, being fun, being freedom, being all of these things. All of them know it, any kid — they name it all.
They totally understand this from a very embodied way, maybe moreso than an adult.
Part of this is the connection of biking to both social and mental health. Sure, biking is exercise, exercise produces endorphins, endorphins are good for the mind and the heart and the body.
But I think cycling now, for me, is part of this repertoire of movement, and how movement can really shape and inform neurochemistry in a person's brain.
Today, as Donna works to complete a Masters in Counselling with a specialization in dance movement therapy, she is able to connect the dots between the theory of movement and its impact on the brain — and from the brain back to the body — and cycling, in reconciling people with past experiences, like trauma.
The very first thing that when I teach cycling to someone who either has never cycled before or has developed an adverse response to cycling is that they lose their centre of awareness of where their body is on a bike.
When we work with trauma, this is part of the language that we use — helping someone discover what their resource is.
It's not to negate all of these things that we went through, that they have to live with, but that they know they have this resource to at least speak to this other part of them.
So cycling can be part of that resource that can always buoy this other part of you that gets into the lulls of things.
Her language colours her experience; and because her experiences far outpace my own in their breadth and depth, of places and traumas not my own, her language brings a special colour to this larger story. (Yes, that includes the swears — sorry, just grab a beer with Donna. It all works, you'll see...)
Which brings us back to China.
In 2010 when I was there, there was this particular apathy that broke my heart, that I felt from not just generations before, but my own generation.
Here's a structure, here's a system that they're part of. And it's heart-breaking, not because they're apathetic, but because that was the only choice that they saw they had.
But at the same time I get it. I get it because to break it means to challenge every single thing.
That I have been able to have freedom of speech. Freedom to make choices. Freedom to make mistakes and re-do it all over again. Freedom to reinvent myself in ways that may be inconvenient, that may be looked down upon, maybe I don't know — stigmatized.
I think many times people take this for granted. It took me many, many years, if not more than a couple of decades, to realize how I fucking appreciate this opportunity.