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THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

It is a year after my first trip to Singapore, and almost a year after the article was published.  There is a story behind the story.  The article was written for an audience of cyclists in California, so some things had to be explained to Americans, and I'm sure Singaporeans wonder why I chose to explain what I explained.

Now that I've been back to California and I'm back in Singapore again, I have a different perspective on my own words!

On friends

First off, I am a lazy author, and left the title, "Bike Friendships and Exploring Singapore," to the editor.  (The way the magazine is set up, different "titles" appear on the cover, and each page of the article, depending on the space available.)  Yes, I usually refer to TA as my "bike friends," but only because bikes are the obvious things we have in common and mostly how we spend our time together.  I don't think of friendships I formed in high school as "High school friendships."  A few have lasted longer than that, and those are most certainly adult friendships.  Friends are friends.

What do we Absolutees have in common?  I find it hard to believe that I could be as kind and generous as my TA friends, but they certainly have that in common with each other.  Also, we might be humble.

I find it hard to believe that I could travel 9,000 miles from home and find a compatible warped sense of humor my first week in a new country.  We always have interesting things to talk about when we aren't out of breath, chewing food, or drinking.  Absolutees have done lots of interesting things, or at least make it sound that way when a little teh halia or Milo ice gets into their systems.  It helps to be a good storyteller--some of the guys are actually good riders and racers and so they have real stories.  For the rest of us, the presentation is everything.

Sting the superhero

I feel a little regret that I left Sting's brother out of the story of my first ride completely.  Sting, with his titanium bike, yellow jersey, and metallic implants, ready to rescue the confused visitor from abroad, seems like a cycling superhero.  It would have been anti-climactic to herald the arrival of "Sting, and his brother, James."  People in California who talked to me about the article were disappointed to find out that Sting has a real name and a technology job and isn't very tall for a superhero.  A brother, too?  How mundane.

Americans are very concerned about height.  I also left out that part of Sting's first impression upon me.  As the directeur sportif of TA, he is the one we all turn to for instructions about the Thursday rides.  I have wondered if Sting's force of personality could overcome American height discrimination, or if everybody would just listen to the tall, loud guys instead.  (I can't really do much about being a tall American in Singapore, but I try not to be too loud when there are guys like Sting to learn stuff from.)

People would probably be really disappointed to find out that Sting is a student again, and a grad student, no less.  How many grad students are superheros?  I should play up the mad physicist angle.

Singaporean stereotypes and red lights

I wrote, "In a country where the fine for spitting is $1,000, I am following these guys through red lights and onto the freeway."  All Americans really know about Singapore is that chewing gum is illegal (technically untrue), and that caning is punishment for minor vandalism.  (But Americans are not even aware that Singaporeans speak English, and think I'm joking when I tell them that.)  Some Americans admire cracking down on vandalism, but imagine that the people who live under such a system must be very boring and docile.  I want everybody to know that Singaporeans are at least rebellious enough to run red lights when there is no traffic around.  So there!

In the U.S., it is legal to ride on the freeway when there is no other parallel route.  But most people don't know that, so this seems really daring.  I still don't know if it's legal in Singapore, but I have a long rambling oration about British common law and the invention of the bicycle being the force behind paved roads ready just in case.

Food

With a year's perspective, I thought this was funny: "We can stay out a bit late and drink tea and eat food I haven't learned to identify yet while talking about bike stuff."  I still don't identify everything correctly, but pointing is pretty effective.  

I didn't see how to explain banana prata.  Naan is the only Indian bread non-Indian Americans know about, and if you don't know what roti prata is, it's hard to appreciate the creativity, commercialism, gluttony, and disregard for tradition it takes to put banana slices in it and smother it in honey.  Recently, I saw ice cream prata on a menu, but I haven't tried it yet.

There are not many places in the U.S. where a smelly group of cyclists would be welcome or comfortable after a ride.  The U.S. economy has no place for restaurants that would use the cheap plastic chairs and glaring fluorescent lights of hawker centers and neighborhood food stalls.  McDonald's is a cheap and low-key as it gets, and that's not great post-ride nutrition anyway.  Singapore is far advanced in public places for friends to hang out and eat.

Geography

To a resident of the Bay Area, the statement, "Singapore is the size of San Francisco Bay south of San Francisco and home to 4,000,000 people," makes it seem tiny and crowded.  I didn't mention that in four months, the farthest I got from home was 35 miles away.  Some people in the Bay Area have commutes that far!

Treatment of cyclists

Singaporeans are surprised to find out that I think heavy Singapore traffic is in some ways better to ride in than urban parts of California.  It's daunting for someone who wants to take up cycling, to be sure.  It comes down to drivers having different expectations.

Drivers in Singapore and Malaysia are used to sharing cramped spaces with other traffic.  Americans are used to open roads in front of them, and make their displeasure known when they are deprived of it. Nobody expects that in Singapore, and so waiting for a cyclist is no more of a concern than waiting for someone getting into a taxi or making a turn.

While it is true that there are no bike lanes in Singapore, that means that drivers can't expect cyclists to ride in them and nowhere else.  After all, most roads even in bike-friendly American cities do not have bike lanes.  Sometimes the bike lane has debris that drivers can't see, and you can't really turn or pass if you never leave the bike lane.  As unrealistic as it is to expect bikes to ride only in bike lanes, some people expect just that, and cyclists who violate that expectation by riding on roads without bike lanes or by changing lanes to turn hear about it.

Singaporeans and Malaysians expect a group of cyclists to behave as a group.  This seems like common sense, common to all human beings, but Americans believe that cyclists should be held to the strictest interpretation of traffic laws, even if it means the last few riders stop when the light turns red and have to make up two minutes on the rest of the group.  You can find angry letters to the editor on this topic in most urban newspapers.  Apparently, American drivers think it's unreasonable to have to actually look to see that an intersection is clear after the light turns green.

That said, riding during the day in Singapore again reminded me of how close cars, trucks, and buses get to you.  There is less room for error.  After I got back to California, my friends thought I was crazy for some of the spaces I'd fit myself in while riding in traffic.  In Singapore, you have to maneuver some tight spaces to get up to the front at red lights, and so you get used to vehicles being much closer to you.

A vaguely threatening question 

Even though I suspected he was teasing all along, I took the Malaysian cafe worker's question about how much the bike costs as vaguely threatening, an attempt to find out what he could sell it for after his "test ride."  At least that's what you'd be asked during a bikejacking in the U.S.

But just the other day I was out for a ride and offered to help out a guy on a mountain bike who seemed to be adjusting his bike.  After figuring out that he was OK, he asked me how much my bike costs.  I realize this is a pretty standard question in this part of the world. I'm also getting used to people asking if I'm married and how old I am within seconds of meeting me.

Next time is here 

"Next time I visit Singapore, I won't have to ride with strangers," I wrote.  Next time is here, and there are some strangers among TA who I am meeting.  Between last time and this time, Machoman has visited California to get me hooked on mountain biking, and other members of TA have been dispatched to remote parts of the planet.

During my first visit and while I was writing the article, I was struck with how convenient it was for us to get together, ride and eat, and thought that was the main thing needed for me to associate myself with this particular crowd.  During more than a year without the chance to do that, we still managed to keep in touch and to get together and ride again after all this time.  Something I hoped for, but could not have expected at the time.

I still haven't been on more rides with anybody than Sting.

Comments or criticism can be sent to gingerman@teamabsolut.net
 

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