What I Saw in Beijing

Or “Why I Missed Mao’s Portrait”

Beijing, China

I am not the most cosmopolitan guy in the world, but because of my job, I’ve had the opportunity to visit Asia a dozen times or so over the past few years. Yesterday, as I sat in the back of a taxi (Beijing’s cabs, by the way, don’t have working seatbelts or air conditioning. Alas!), I realized that, compared to even just a few years ago, there are remarkably fewer bicycles on the streets. As a result, those who do bike in China’s capital city now seem particularly fearless.

Because we were stuck in traffic (rush hour in Beijing is what you’d expect of a city with 20 million people) near Tiananmen Square, I happened to notice a cyclist, a middle-aged man riding on a homemade bicycle built for two. As he steered with one hand, with the other he held on to his small son (Was he 4 or 5?), who sat directly behind him, just an inch or two above the rusty bike’s rear wheel. His seat appeared to be a small wooden block.

I held my breath as I watched the rickety contraption weave in an out of traffic, but what immediately struck me, more than the sense of danger, was the look on the boy’s face. He was the picture of serenity; the sense of trust he had in his father was complete.

That image of father and son making their way up the busy Beijing boulevard stays with me, and it makes wonder if, the next time my family is barreling down Avenue Road in our SUV, will I have the courage to look at a son’s face? And if I do, what will I see?

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