Parallel Worlds



BEIJING - On a November evening last year Shannon Bufton took his five minutes as a PechaKucha participant in a Beijing session to explain the work of Smarter than Car (STC). It was standing room only, as about forty-fifty people listened in a corner of The Bookworm, a bookstore frequented by ex-pats and known for its collection of foreign books. Bufton, a biking enthusiast originally from Australia, was trying to get Beijingers to ride their bikes more.


Sitting in the audience I couldn’t help but feel a little dumbfounded, being in a city where 20% of the population rode bikes along tree-lined lanes, stopped at stoplights for bikes, parked their bikes in underground bike parking garages; while in the US it was “share the road” or literally try not to crash into the parked car or get whacked by the moving car. As I listened to his proposal for bike repair stations designed by Chinese design students, I wondered if Bufton was on some sort of self-appointed green peace corps of sorts, one of the more ambitious members of a parallel world of ex-pats trying to make Chinese greener. I don’t think he is, and I’ve discovered that in some ways perhaps he’s not that different from me.


Recently I met with the three co-founders of STC, Bufton from Australia, Ines Brunn from Germany, and Liman Zhao from Beijing. One of the main things that I learned about this group is that they are doing what they love, and perhaps unlike some of the other groups and organizations out there, are not explicitly in China to try and get Chinese to live greener lives. Bufton, Brunn and Zhao were all in Beijing first, and followed their love of biking second, and third are trying to get ex-pats and Chinese to love biking like they do.


One of the trademark activities of STC is stationary bike races, where 2-4 participants race against each other with their progress projected on a screen. This is how I was first introduced to STC when they co-sponsored an event with China’s oldest environmental organization Friends of Nature. On a cold winter night in a bar in the heart of Beijing’s oldest district, my neighbor and I both thought we were going to die after we had a try. At this event, the crowd seemed to be fairly evenly split between Chinese and ex-pats, with probably more Chinese than English spoken.


The last time I saw these races, I was at a charity event last spring at the Great Wall. Cyclists rode near the Great Wall for about two hours and their entrance fees went to support a center for rural elderly citizens. At this second event, the 100+ participants were almost all ex-pats who spoke English, quite often with an Australian accent. I’m not sure if I heard any Chinese spoken other than among the local leaders and elderly who came to welcome the participants.


For Bufton, Brunn or myself, it becomes a question of where you want to situate yourself here in Beijing. I was asked this question just yesterday by someone from the UK, do you mostly hang out with foreigners or Chinese? Thinking about the text messages in Chinese on my phone, I replied “Chinese.” This is the case with those who get themselves involved with environmental issues as well. Bufton sees the work of STC as about buidling a bike culture first and foremost, but their work does dovetail with the efforts of those trying to address environmental problems in China.


There are almost two parallel worlds here in Beijing when it comes to the environment and energy: one mostly of Chinese who communicate in Chinese and one mostly of ex-pats who speak in English. I’ve spent some time within the Chinese world attending a nature walk and listening to a talk about what plants you can and can’t eat, but much of my time has been spent within the ex-pat world that Chinese nationals occassionally visit.


As the examples above illustrate, STC has been able to cross between the two worlds, yet not without difficulty. Bufton, Brunn and Zhao said that it is difficult to reach out to both worlds, and that generally they have to pick one or the other when planning their events. Timing, the presence of food, alcohol or prizes and location are factors that can determine who will attend the event. 


Since 2008 I have often wondered if China or other countries can teach the United States a thing or two about effecienty, as the United States emits close to 80% more greenhouse gas emissions per person than China, and close to twice as much as some European countries. Is there a parallel world of ex-pats in the United States trying to make the US greener just as there are ex-pats trying to make China greener? The US does have foreign organizations like WWF and Greenpeace. Perhaps in the United States if one were to think of parallel worlds, it would not be based on nationality but rather the degree to which one worries about health insurance costs and finding a job versus the melting of the third pole and the plight of polar bears.


If one can really make such a distinction about the US, neither world sounds particularly exciting, or at least this is what ex-pats like my friends and I tell ourselves while we are here in Beijing. I recently told a friend from National Resources Defense Council over lunch that I’m not trying to change China, I’m trying to change the United States. Bufton and Brunn in quite fun and innovative ways, are trying to share what they love, bicycling. I’m trying to find a better path for the United States from the city I love, Beijing.