Twelve minutes on my bicycle

Shortly after six on Friday, 5 August 2005, I start pedalling home from a cram school. What follows are the observations and conversations with myself that compete for my attention over the next twelve minutes.

Thought number 1: “I completely misunderstood Zhang when she started talking about the Chinese teacher and her problems.”

Response to thought number 1: “Don’t worry about it. I know the story. It’s not really important.”

Through the temple gate and a green traffic light, just ahead of a scooter that recklessly run the red light …

Thought number 2: “So I arrived at the school with the idea that I actually want to go to South Africa between 2 and 14 September. Just as I was taking off my shoes at the door, a bell went off. ‘September third, September third … why does it sound so important?’ I pushed open the door, and then I remembered: Ernesta’s farewell weekend! But …”

A man with a pack of cigarettes in his hand walks to a car parked in the middle of the road. I’m distracted. I go around the corner and see a woman. She’s pregnant. I look at her feet: fat toes with nails clipped too short. She’s not particularly attractive. She’s in a gritty part of town. My imagination kicks in.

Thought number 3: “She reminds me of a character in a movie … the woman was not too bright. Could this woman’s husband also be a member of a crime syndicate? How would he feel when his child is born? Will they be able to raise the child properly? Will the child end up following in his or her parents’ footsteps? If the man is a member of a crime syndicate and the child is a boy, will he end up also becoming a gangster – an open sore on a community that does not need nor can afford more criminals? If the guy is a gangster, does he believe his fellow mobsters will treat him with more respect once he’s got a child? Will he end up using his child in arguments he would not have been able to win in any other way? Then again, what about accountants, and engineers, and office managers? Do they always raise their children properly? Is it always a good thing if their children follow in their footsteps? Do they not also sometimes use their children in arguments they would not have been able to win in any other way?”

At the traffic lights, I turn left. Two boys stare at me as if I don’t belong in that part of town. I see a bundle of … thread? A fish net. An old man is sitting on a low stool beside the road pulling the net apart. A dog is lying on the ground next to him playing with the net. The old man looks unperturbed.

Thought number 4: “How does it feel to live like that? Say you live on an island, or on a remote beach. You spend your time pulling nets apart, and walking your dog along the sea, and fishing, and taking naps in the shade of a tree. What would such a man say to someone who talks about famine in Africa, or war in Iraq, or bombs in London? Will he say, ‘It does not matter to me’? ‘This stretch of beach, this view of a piece of ocean, this is my world. I do not really care about what happens in other places.’ Then the other person will say, ‘What if there’s a situation where, if only one person could help – and that one person could be you, it would save lives?’ ‘Well, if it’s their time, it’s their time,’ the guy will probably answer.

“The problem with this attitude is that the bad guys are never so casual about things. To tell the truth, it’s one of the biggest fuckups you’ll ever find – this thing that apathy and indifference are never characteristics of those who endanger lives, and destroy, and corrupt, and exploit and oppress until the last drop of blood! So the guy with his life on the beach, with his fish net and his dog and his small piece of ocean, will eventually also have to choose.”

“This I have to write down when I get home,” I think as I pedal the last hundred or so meters up the hill.

And then I suddenly remember the thought about a possible trip to South Africa from a few minutes ago. “So even if I had money for a vacation in September, I couldn’t possibly let my friend down in her final week in Taiwan. Pity I didn’t think about that when I had to explain to the family why I won’t be able to visit them next month.”