Other People's Bikes
I’m 42 and I never learned how to ride a bike. When I hear someone say, “It’s kind of like riding a bike,” my robot brain spins and spins but cannot “compute.” To one like me who doesn’t know how to ride, nothing is like riding a bike, and yet this saying is taken as fact by a whole lot of people. Do I sound bitter? I’m not. Mostly, I’m sad. Sad that my family could not teach their young child to do something that most of the world, first and emerging, know how to do––China has almost 80% of their population riding bikes, that’s about .08 billion men, women, and children on bikes.
My family had to basically start their lives all over when they immigrated to the United States from Korea. They could have stayed where they were as they were pretty comfortable with my father’s dental practice and my mother at home with me. But that was not enough for my mother who wanted something bigger for us. She was ripe for the American Dream. I don’t blame her for having these aspirations; I just wish she could have been happy while pursuing them.
Our unhappiness was tragic light. We weren’t Anna Karenina-unhappy, but we seemed unable to do anything right: We ended up in a neighborhood considered by the police department as one of the worst for drug dealings and drive-bys, my mother’s dream of becoming a hat designer went bust when none of the department stores wanted her homemade hats (no Etsy back then), and my father could not get licensed as a dentist here no matter how many times he tried––the climate of anti-immigrant has a long history and casts a long shadow in America. It is no wonder they had little time or emotional reach left for me.
My strongest bike memory is when my friend’s mom put me on the back of her bike to go to the park (my friend on her own). My foot got caught in the spokes of the back wheel. No big deal with my foot, it was just skinned up a little, but the experience put a fear in me that I just couldn’t shake. And here it is that I find my regret to be the keenest because I let that fear stop me from learning to do something that would have given me immense pleasure and a strong sense of self.
I won’t lie to you, that fear hasn’t gone anywhere, and was alive and kicking during my first bike lesson in the park. I found a guy who teaches adults how to ride when I read an article about him in a neighborhood paper. I took it as a sign and called him. Eddie started teaching children and only thought to include adults when approached by a woman who was looking to learn. Five years later, he’s got an assistant who manages his schedule and social media, plus a bike chain jewelry business. A week later, I was buying a helmet and steeling myself for the worst.
People stare at you with some confusion when they realize that you’re a grown-up learning to do something they learned when they were 5. But because I am concentrating so hard on not falling and holding on for dear life, everything gets blocked out. Although, Eddie is clear on reminding me that I need to be aware of my surroundings––dogs, cars, bicyclists. Don’t be afraid to look behind you, he says.
These are all the things I need to learn if I am really serious about getting a bike and joining the riding class. Like gears. Lesson #2 was all about gears. Bike riders change gears in their sleep, instinctively switching gears depending on terrain, but not me. I have to visualize in which direction my hand should be turning and when––Up a hill, go to 1. Down a hill, go to 4 or 5. Or 7 as I go into a bush while trying to change gears in motion.
My instructor is low key and non-judgmental, two qualities essential for a teacher to possess, but especially vital for one charged with teaching me to overcome my fear. He shouts out “speed is your friend” as I accelerate down the bike lane next to bikers whose pants seem to be on fire. That was Lesson #3. Eddie is also thoughtful in his approach, emphasizing that I learn the right way from the beginning so I won’t pick up bad habits. Like my tendency to depend on a hill’s velocity to start or how I pick up both feet and put them on the pedals to start. These are both no-nos. He’s right, bad habits are hard to break. Like the habit of letting fear stop you.
So here I am, at the intersection of past and future, with one foot on the ground and the other on the pedal, trying to get past my baggage. But no matter, I know how lucky I am to be here, a place where I have a choice. A choice, a long time in the making, to look at my fear for what it is––feelings from my childhood that must be acknowledged, but cannot remain a roadblock any longer.
I choose to push off and ride towards the proverbial sunset, knowing whatever gear I’m in, speed is my friend.
Jiwon Choi: "I am a poet, teacher and urban gardener. I teach preschool at the Educational Alliance, a multi-generation non-profit located on the Lower East Side of NYC. I am also a long-time urban gardener and membership coordinator for the Pacific Street Brooklyn Bear’s Community Garden located near Downtown Brooklyn."
One Daughter is Worth Ten Sons, published by Hanging Loose Press, is my first book of poetry. I live in Brooklyn, NY."