The traffic cop screamed angrily at me, “Get your bike off the street!”
I had stopped at the middle of an intersection trying to make a left like a car in Manhattan as oncoming traffic streamed to my left and cars in my direction passed on my right. How I was supposed to get my bike off the street safely with cars moving on either side of me, I had no clue. I look back at the cop and said simply, “I’m just trying to make a left turn.” The traffic cop just glared back at me with contempt and fury.
Logically, I had no safe way to immediately comply with the cop’s demand until there was a gap in the oncoming traffic where I could take the left safely. So it wasn’t actually a reasonable and actionable demand, but rather the underlying meaning of the cop’s words was an assertion that I as a bicyclist do not belong in the street.
This experience resonates with me as a Korean American. I like many Asian Americans get the question, “Where are you from?” When I answer California, many times the follow-up question is either “No, where are really from?” or “No, I meant what’s your ethnicity?” As many others have noted, the underlying and aggressive intent of the “Where are you from?” question is “Why are you here?”
Fighting for the right to exist in the street as a bicyclist resonates with my experiences of simply trying to belong in American society. To me, being told to get my bike off the street feels a lot like when people have told me me to go back to where I came from. To me, part of my love of bicycling is to explore an experience that helps me better understand and process the systems, structures, and people involved in the damage I feel from my own racial experiences of yearning and feeling excluded as “other.”
I write this not as a way to universalize or minimize bicycling as a way to explain racism, xenophobia, white privilege, or other structural oppressions. I do however think it’s useful for me to think about how my experiences across different contexts can resonate and help me gain some glimmer of insight into the conditions that frame me. If my words resonate with your experiences, that’s awesome, but I will not however speak for how other people experience life based on my bicycling experiences.
Let’s start at the beginning. Growing up in a wealthy suburb of the SF Bay Area, I idolized cars. We lived in a very inaccessible neighborhood, where it was really hard to get anywhere without a car. In many ways, my car represented a way to escape the confines and expectations of the family home, but also as a way for me to feel more American. Having a nice car almost felt like it was a public assertion to other Americans that I deserve to be here. A car allowed me to build friendships and take super-fun roadtrips with friends like the picture below. My parents didn’t bike nor did really anyone I knew so I never learned how to bike until my mid-twenties.
What changed? Well, a couple of years after college, I lived two years in Kazakhstan as a Peace Corps Volunteer where I didn’t drive. While away, I missed my car as it felt like part of my identity. After getting home, I was excited to drive again, but slowly I began realizing that driving often sucks. I immediately noticed how much stress driving added to my day – being stuck in traffic, the golden handcuffs of car dependency, the expense, and so on. My developing sense of environmentalism certainly played a factor in this, but in many ways, my Peace Corps experience transformed me and as a result, I had a stronger and more confident sense of self, which no longer partly relied on the fragility of an identity driven by my car.
Still, it took me a long time to give up my car. I only did so after participating in a Bike to Work event in Lake Tahoe. We lived only two miles from my workplace, yet, I always drove to work. After biking to work, it was like an epiphany – I don’t need my car. To be fair, my partner has a car so I could borrow it when I needed it or catch a ride from a friend, but I still felt liberated. To me, this transitional experience from car-based mobility highlighted how deeply embedded I had internalized car culture and privilege. In addition, I realized much work and process it took me to move past internalized assumptions of how life is supposed to be like. This is especially so when life is set up for a car-based lifestyle and it’s not obvious how to live a new kind of life without much supportive infrastructure. With spotty bike infrastructure, bicycling for transportation in Tahoe was not the easiest thing to do, but it so was damn beautiful and fun too.
But still I was able to develop bicycling as a commuting practice through the safe spaces of bicycling I found in Tahoe. When I move into the safe spaces of car-free and separated bike paths, I can literally feel a weight lift from my body, which represents the hefty fear of being hurt by car power. With the momentary removal of this burden, I feel these safe spaces like this quote from Sarah Robinson:
Safe bicycling spaces allowed me to gather beginning levels of experience, strength and skill with far less fear, damage and burden than streets choked with cars.
Moving to New York City was a shocking bicycling transition from Tahoe. For my first year in NYC, I mainly just biked a little bit around my neighborhood in Astoria, but I was extremely intimidated by doing so amidst the aggressive driving in Manhattan where I spend most of my time in grad school. But after doing field research into the Tahoe Bike-to-Work event, I realized that I needed to try to bike in NYC and see if I could do it. I did, I was terrified, but survived and slowly learned how to confront and manage my fears. Now I’m very comfortable navigating NYC streets with or without bike lanes.
Symbolically, this was a huge step for me beyond the bicycling ramifications. I have always feared backlash, rejection, and punishment for being different or speaking against power. Part of this has been growing up in an upper middle class background where you are told that if you play by the rules, life will be good. Also, being Asian American, there is the problem of the model minority myth, which has a destructive allure for many while defining Asians within narrow boundaries for the benefit of white supremacy. Disembedding myself from the model minority myth was hard because it promises a kind of contingent American Dream if you behave. Not only is this promise contingent on being a “good” Asian, but it comes at the cost of being used as a prop to demonize “bad” minorities. It’s taken a while, but I refuse to be accepted into the American Dream on contingency and through the injustice of others. In this way, bicycling has allowed me to gain experience in confronting (car) power and become comfortable in doing something different.
Bicycling in NYC has me thinking about oppression and resistance in many different ways. For example, I think a lot about how you can bike through the tiny leftover spaces of the street when cars block each other (and often move faster than the cars), but it comes at a risk:
While many may take this video as indicating risk, and there is risk, my intent is to think about the opportunities and risks in resisting power by navigating through the leftover spaces, in the margins. This video makes me think of bell hooks when she writes:
Power may take up a lot of space, but there are always little creases and gaps. Navigating through these spaces of resistance are challenging because these gaps are constantly shifting, ephemeral, risky, and collapsible at any given moment. In addition, as many bike advocates have noted, the police are much more likely to blame the cyclist and absolve the driver of any wrongdoing and harm. This makes me reflect on how when I express my discontent over experiences of structural racism and xenophobia, that many people react as if the problem is located in me alone rather than something that should be addressed at systematic and collective levels. Going through spaces of resistance is to risk being blamed for the damage inflicted upon you in this resistance while simultaneously those who have greater power to inflict harm are absolved of the responsibility for the damage they cause. This is why I believe as bell hooks suggests in a community of resistance.
Part of my writing & riding is to put myself out there and be a public member of a community of resistance against oppressive conditions. Part of my writing & riding is learning how to love and care both for myself and others. Part of my writing & riding is to be able to process and let go of my hurt, fears, anger, and sadness and move into spaces of possibilities. Part of my writing & riding is simply because I love doing both and they connect me to wonderful places and people.
While moving through space and time on a bike and through the written word, I am also moving something large inside of me.
Wow, thank you so much for sharing this! It’s a really beautiful read, moving, resonant and a pleasure. Who EVER thought someone would be able to make a good analogy between the frustrations of biking and of model minority-type structural racism?! 🙂 Thanks for putting this out there.
And…excited to get on my bike!
Thanks Gaurav and happy riding!