urbanter

Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Bamboo Bicycles Beijing: Week 1

Hello, I’m Geena!

I have been in Beijing, China for a little over a week now, working in the depths of an old hutong neighborhood in the little gem of a workshop called Bamboo Bicycles Beijing. (See here for a bio and description of BBB!) Most of my first days were something like an orientation, to get my hands working on the bike projects going on in order to get a feel for how the workshop operates. In this first post I’ll share some of the ways my understanding of the workshop has deepened through participating in it.

A typical view of the workshop in action: lots of peer-to-peer teaching and learning!

A typical view of the workshop in action: lots of peer-to-peer teaching and learning!

Sitting outside the workshop mitering one of the frames built at the 32nd BBB workshop, held last weekend.

Sitting outside the workshop mitering one of the frames built at the 32nd BBB workshop this last weekend.

There are three aspects of the workshop that are really sticking with me as I end my first week at BBB:

1) Intentionality of scale: BBB has existed for about a year now and hosted 33 workshops, which have produced just shy of 150 completed bamboo bicycles and their proud owners. Though the “reach” could certainly be considered small in a city of over eleven million, the workshop gathers a self-selecting, extremely passionate bunch who end up taking ownership of the workshop in their own way and often volunteer many hours over many weekends to pass on the skills they have learned to others who are just learning how to make their own bikes. In the last week, I was in the space for three or four media outlets who interviewed and videotaped David, BBB’s founder. I heard him reflect often on his disappointment with some of the outlets’ offers to help expand BBB’s brand and image by spinning their stories on him a certain way. “That’s not what we’re about,” David would often say to any story that did not allow for the character of BBB to stand for itself. It feels very special to work alongside someone who has total conviction for what he is and is not about. So what is BBB about, then? For one thing, the small scale of the workshops allows for the cultivation of genuine loyalty and trust in its participants. Other things:

2) Community! A lot of people talk about community. It was a catchphrase I read all over the BBB website and in interviews with David before arriving. However, being on the ground in the BBB neighborhood brought a whole new understanding to the word in the ways it is used to frame BBB’s objectives. The physical space of BBB is open to any passersby for the whole workday. Curious first-time onlookers are welcomed in, and so are the young neighborhood kids who live down the street and sometimes man their parents’ convenience store. In fact, those kids have built their own bamboo bike in the space, and one of them returned to help me build mine on Friday. David’s elderly neighbors also look out for him. One day a long-time resident was just about poised to kick me out of the shared BBB courtyard with her cane, until she realized I was with David and Claudio (another workshop leader) and burst into a forgiving smile, even insisting that I come sit in her home with her. Another neighbor leaves his door open and continually offers food. On one of my first days there he shared with us a homemade lunch over hours of conversation, pictured below. Because of the care that David takes to be a positive, active contributor to the neighborhood in which he’s set up shop, BBB’s participants find themselves cared-for by the existing community. This also strikes me as very special, perhaps guided in large part by a respect for communicating in the language of the community and a general thoughtfulness.

Lunch with our generous neighbor ShuShu. Pictured is a traditional Beijing dish 炸酱面 translated as "fried sauce noodles," complete with beer in bowls!

Lunch with our generous neighbor ShuShu. Pictured is a traditional Beijing dish 炸酱面, translated as “fried sauce noodles,” complete with beer in bowls!

3) Empowerment: I’ve worked as a mechanic in different bike shops in high school and college. In most bike shops in the U.S. at least, the norm is for amateur mechanics to start off learning to change flats, then do basic assemblies, then the more advanced aspects of assemblies, and finally the varied challenges of repairs. As an amateur mechanic, I was accustomed in past summers to learn two or three tasks and repeat them the entire summer, as the business models of most bike shops are most efficient if mechanics work assembly-line style. BBB has been different from the get-go because of the peer-to-peer teaching and learning that happens around the clock. It is everyone’s intention there to equip longtime workers there to deal with the entire process of building a bike, from selecting the raw material to calibrating the very last component. In fact, anyone who walks through the door can be put to work immediately by whoever has the capacity to teach. The teaching style is very couched in doing: someone will typically explain a process to me, then hand the tools over to me to do myself. This is so wonderful! Especially as a woman engineering student who has had a fair share of tools taken straight out of my hands to get the job done for me “better” or “faster.”

David has continually said that the beauty of BBB is that every new person who joins the team changes the organization in some way because of the new ideas and projects they bring — through planning bike rides and picnics, hosting photo competitions, making new arts and crafts, starting a video series, or taking ownership of BBB’s social media presence. Because the entire workshop was executed on one person’s own initiative, the norm for how things get done is that individuals must implement their visions on their own volition, all the time. This is just one more way BBB lives up to its mission to empower those who spend time there.

Well, I’m halfway through the 2-day workshop to build my own bamboo bike now, so by next week hopefully I will have something to show for it! I will also be moving away from doing bike mechanics and into doing some different projects. Thank you for reading!

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