22 June 2022

The ideal self

With the hot summer now fully taken over, I have found myself remembering the nights in Malaysia when we had no aircon and the fans spun on high speed through the night. There was a kind of coolness in the morning, that was not really coolness, but a manageable warmth, still humid, but you didn't instantly start to sweat in it. Here, this week, a kind of tipping point comes very early in the morning from the oppressive heat that one struggles to sleep through and this same cool humidity that seems like it should be filled with the call to prayer for Fajr. 

When we first came to Birmingham, in January of 2014, I decided I needed a bike to get back and forth from Newman. I looked on Gumtree, as you do, and found something good, with pannier bags that I thought would suit what I needed and contacted the guy who posted it to meet up. He wanted to meet at the bus stop at the airport, which only seemed problematic when I arrived and he came riding up on the bike from somewhere, from off stage. I looked it over and asked about it, why he was giving it up, and he didn't seem to have a real meaningful story. He asked me what I was doing here, and I said I was teaching, and he said he wished he could do a job like that instead of doing, and he gestured to the bike and said, this. I realised later that this contained a lot, the bike as a metonymy for a whole life of petty crime. I paid him whatever he was asking and took the bike back on the train, the sinking feeling that I'd done something very wrong. 

For more than a year, I walked with the two girls up the hill in Quinton, to Woodhouse Primary. Mei and Naomi would follow behind or ride on the back of the bike and I would then cycle into Newman until I realised it was more trouble than it was worth to pull the bike out of the garden shed that was attached to the house and eventually became our extended toilet, and I started to yo-yo my weight back and forth by just running to Newman with my new backpack. The girls moved on from Woodhouse too and somehow, whatever mistake I felt I had made after my PhD felt like it wasn't a mistake anymore and we were back on track to the British Dream we had in 2011 when we had our first discussions about trying to stay in the UK and not returning to Japan.

I had another bike for many years after that, a cruiser that I also bought in dubious circumstances, although I was sure that the person was legitimate. When I went to get it repaired the first time, the guy working in the University of Birmingham bike repair shop, in a trailer under Staff House looked at me like I was an idiot, of course it was stolen, and when I protested, saying it seemed like it was not the sort of bike you'd see in this country, and he said, maybe not in Birmingham, but definitely in Bristol, and I realised he was probably right and was immediately filled with the same sense of guilt from funding what he described as an international bike theft syndicate. We did manage to break free from the bike thieves when we became more established on Victoria Road and bought a bike for Yoko from a neighbour. And then some months later another neighbour gave us another bike, a baby blue one, that I had forgotten about until a few weeks ago when four of us, four of the Pihlajas of Harborne all got on bikes and we rode into the city centre, me on this baby blue bike from the late-70s which felt light, like riding almost nothing after the many years of the heavy cruiser. 

This bike, I thought, when I first rode it, was probably a women's bike, whatever that means, but it was quite comfortable because you can step through the frame and that's really what I wanted. It also scratched my rebellious itch of challenging gender norms, and allowed me to set up a joke I was enjoying telling: I would say something like, I think it's a women's bike and then when the person I was showing the bike to would say it probably is, I say something like, Yeah, but where would you normally expect the penis to be on a bike, that's the real question. This bait and switch was a clever teaching moment, I thought to myself, glibly, until it occurred to me the joke was probably transphobic and I needed to stop saying it. Before I had this realisation, I was getting to the women's bike part of the set-up as I talked to the new guy at the University of Birmingham Bike trailer, but he stopped me and said, We're not allowed to call them women's bikes anymore like some woke liberal had taken it away from them. He quickly realised that this comment made me uncomfortable and explained the whole distinction was meaningless anyway, you'll notice this faded decal here says 'fleur' which is French for flower and there are flowers all over it and I was then more offended that he felt he needed to explain the meaning of the French word to me. I know what fleur means, I'm not an idiot. I just hadn't seen it. But to be fair, he was right: all over the bike were faded, rusty decals that appeared to have one time been flowers.

The bike is a dream though: five very hard gears, 1978 gears, and a shifter on the bike frame that is not a regulated shifter so you move between them like notes on a violin. It's lighter and more nimble and I can pick up speed quickly, feeling the way you feel on a bike sometimes, totally liberated from the madness of a burning world, of £1.90 petrol. My ideal self, unashamed of riding a bike not marketed to my assigned gender, and willing to aggressively challenge people about it if they are foolish enough to say anything. To ask them directly to identify the genitalia on the bicycle, I'll wait. It's not the real me, the real me is insecure and terrified the older boys from Sunday School will harass me, that they'll follow me into the toilet to mock me. But who says I can't pretend like it is, pretend that there is no limit to what I can do if I claim it for myself, if I do it confidently.