Ask a Korean: Do You Bike?

It took me forty-two years to learn how to ride a bike.

Hello old horse

Hello old horse

But even an old horse can learn something new.

For years when people would say, “It’s kind of like riding a bike” my robot brain would go spinning on a “Does not compute” loop.  To someone who doesn’t know how to ride, nothing is like riding a bike, but this saying is accepted as fact by a whole lot of people.

Tokyo Bike

Tokyo Bike

That my family did not teach me to do something that most of the world, first and emerging, know how to do––China has almost 80% of their population riding bikes––stinks.  And indicative of the turmoil that took over their lives when they displaced themselves here.  My mother and father had to start their lives all over when they immigrated to the United States from Korea.  They could have stayed where they were as they were pretty comfortable with my father’s dental practice and my mother at home with me, but my mother had bought into the American Dream and that’s all folks. I don’t blame her for having these aspirations; I just wish she could have been happy while pursuing them.

Saying goodbye

Saying goodbye

Our unhappiness was tragic light.  We weren’t Anna Karenina-unhappy, but we seemed unable to do anything right: We ended up in a neighborhood considered by the police department as one of the worst for drug dealings and drive-bys, my mother’s dream of becoming a hat designer went bust when none of the department stores wanted her homemade hats (no Etsy back then), and my father could not get licensed as a dentist here no matter how many times he tried.

Eddie will teach you to ride!   (Photo: Elizabeth Graham)

Eddie will teach you to ride!     (Photo: Elizabeth Graham)

My strongest bike memory is when as a young child my friend’s mom put me on the back of her bike to go to the park (my friend on her own) when my foot got caught in the spokes of the back wheel.  No big deal with my foot, it was just skinned up a little, but the experience put a fear in me that I just couldn’t shake. And here it is that I find my regret to be the keenest because I let that fear stop me for more than 30 years from learning to do something that would have given me immense pleasure and a strong sense of self.

I won’t lie to you, that fear hasn’t gone anywhere, and was alive and kicking during my first bike lesson in the park.  I found a guy who teaches adults how to ride when I read an article about him in a neighborhood paper.  I took it as a sign and called him.  Eddie started teaching children and only thought to include adults when approached by a woman who was looking to learn.  A week later, I was buying a helmet and steeling myself for the worst.

Not without my helmut

Not without my helmet

People stare at you with some confusion when they realize that you’re a grown-up learning to do something they learned when they were 5.  But because I am concentrating hard on not falling and holding on for dear life, everything gets blocked out.  Although, Eddie reminds me to be aware of my surroundings––dogs, cars, bicyclists.  Don’t be afraid to look behind you, he says.

These are all the things I need to learn if I am really serious about getting a bike and joining the riding class.  Like gears. Lesson #2 was all about gears.   Bike riders change gears in their sleep, instinctively switching gears depending on terrain, but not me.  I have to visualize the direction my hand needs to be turning and when––Up a hill, go to 1.  Down a hill, go to 4 or 5.   Or 7 as I go into a bush while trying to change gears in motion.

Riding high!    (Bicycle Habitat, Brooklyn)

Riding high! (Bicycle Habitat, Brooklyn)

My instructor is low-key and non-judgmental, two essential qualities for a teacher to possess, especially one who is charged with teaching me to overcome my fear and that “speed is my friend” as I accelerate down the bike lane next to bikers whose pants seem to be on fire.  That was Lesson #3.  Eddie is also thoughtful in his approach, emphasizing that I learn the right way from the beginning so I won’t pick up bad habits.  Like my tendency to depend on a hill’s velocity to start or how I pick up both feet and put them on the pedals to start.  These are both no-nos.  He’s right, bad habits are hard to break.  Like the habit of letting fear stop you.

Have helmut, will bicycle

Have helmet, will bicycle

So here I am, at the intersection of past and future, with one foot on the ground and the other on the pedal, trying to get past my baggage.  But no matter, I know how lucky I am to be here, a place where I have a choice.  A choice, albeit a long time in the making, to look at my fear for what it is––feelings from my childhood that must be acknowledged, but not allowed to be a roadblock any longer.

I choose to push-off and ride towards the proverbial sunset, knowing that whatever gear I’m in speed is my friend.


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