Jimmy Huang was better than me at everything, except maybe being tall. He was my debate partner and he was the brains behind the team. I was the judge appeal, if that gives you any idea how unappealing we were, and the only reason I spoke better than he did was because he had moved to Houston from Taiwan when he was eight and when he got to talking quickly he would lapse into a very thick accent and spit.
He was a big spew-spitter, but he was still the brains. We went to nationals on the back of his IQ, and lost three out of four rounds on the weakness of mine.
He was a better athlete. We briefly went to swim team practice because Thomas Lin, another Chinese dude who was smarter than my whole family tree, was a state champion breast stroker and lured us into workouts one summer. Jimmy had the swimming grace and technique of an old typewriter tossed off a pier, but he could beat me in every stroke. He was tough as nails and really enjoyed watching me crumple.
He went to Harvard. I went to Texas.
He became a world-renowned pediatric oncologist at one of the world’s leading medical schools. I became a blogger. About bike racing. For old people.
I tried to keep up our friendship until I realized it wasn’t a friendship. He had needed me to get him to nationals in debate and add a line to his college application, but once that function was served, we drifted apart as in “he rowed as fast as he could in the other direction.”
Jimmy was Chinese, which is what I always called him, even though each time he patiently corrected me. “My name isn’t Jimmy, it’s James, and I’m not Chinese, I’m Taiwanese.”
“What’s the difference?”
“China is a communist authoritarian regime. Taiwan is a capitalist democracy.”
“Taiwan is a friend of America. China is an enemy.”
“So please don’t call me Chinese. I’m not from China.”
“Okay, dude, sorry,” I’d say until the next time.
Finally he got exasperated. “Would you please stop calling me Chinese?”
“Dude, I’m sorry, but you fucking speak Chinese, you look Chinese, and Taiwan used to be part of China.”
“So can I call you English?”
“You can call me whatever you want. I don’t fucking care.”
“I do care,” he said. Then he lectured me about Taiwan and China and stuff. About how Taiwan was a lone outpost of democracy with democratic institutions, constantly threatened by a totalitarian regime, about how the island’s existence depended on the industriousness and dedication of its people, and about how in this age where despotism ruled most of the world and was growing, we had a moral duty to support Taiwan.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” I said.
“To you it’s just a place with ‘Chinese’ people, even though they speak a language called Taiwanese and are independent from China. To me it’s a homeland and its precarious existence matters. Democracy and rule of law are real things and every little bit of democracy on this earth punches a thousand times over its weight. Slavery and oppression are real, Seth. Freedom matters.”
“What am I supposed to do about that?”
“For starters, you could use the right words. I’m Taiwanese, not Chinese. And maybe one day when you become an adult, you can remember this conversation and do something for Taiwan.”
“I don’t know. Go there, maybe. Educate yourself. Spend some of your American dollars on your American allies.”
After we left high school in 1982 I got into biking and it became a craze after the ’84 Olympics. Coincidentally Jimmy had bought a bicycle and started riding. One summer I was in Houston for one of Tom Bentley’s races. I called Jimmy up. He had heard through a mutual friend, Ferdie Wong, who went to Rice and rode for their Beer Bike team, that I rode. “So I hear you are a bicycle racer now?” he asked.
“Yeah, it’s pretty much all I do.”
“Well, I bought a bicycle in Boston and have been riding for a few months. We should go ride together.”
“Nah, you don’t want to do that,” I said. “I’ll rip your fucking legs off.”
“That’s okay,” he said smoothly, recalling a summer’s worth of beatings administered in the pool. “I’ll try to hang on.”
“Jimmy, you don’t understand,” I said. “I don’t pedal around the block with a few buddies sprinting for stop signs. I’m a licensed Cat 2 USCF road racer. I train 500 miles a week. I know you think this is another one of those things where I’m just a puffed-up fraud of a bullshitter, but trust me, even though I am, if you only started riding a bike in earnest a couple of months ago I will be forced to tear you apart and leave you for dead somewhere far from civilization.”
“It should be instructive,” he said patiently. “Why don’t we meet out in Katy? There are some roads out there I’ve been riding on since I came home for the summer.”
“Okay, but why don’t we just go have lunch somewhere? I’m going to destroy your perfect record of always being better than me at everything. And a perfectionist like you will grind down your fucking rear molars from the ignominy of it all.”
“I will take my chances,” he said humbly.
We met out on one of the farm roads west of Katy. He had shorts and jersey and helmet and an entry-level racing bike. I had my Team Peloton garb (Team “Group of Cyclists” translated from the French), my sparkling blue Eddy Merckx with Campy Super Record, shaved legs, and a musette bag stuffed with ten flavors of whup-ass.
The roads west of Katy are flat and the prevailing wind is southeast. “Let’s start with a tailwind,” I said. “It will be easier for you. In the beginning, anyway.”
I was pretty excited, and I started kind of hard. He knew how to draft and immediately got on my wheel. Pretty soon I backed it off and let the tail wind push us along. After ten minutes or so I looked back. He was still on my wheel, but he didn’t look very good. I couldn’t believe my good luck, so I eased off a bit so that he could catch his breath. We rolled with that tailwind for 30 minutes. I glanced back once more and saw that he was in the box.
“Hey, pal,” I said. “You’re looking like a fish that’s been fed a live grenade. Want to turn around?”
“Okay,” he said.
We did and hit that headwind. It was awful. I settled into a pace that I figured was just enough for him to hang on, knowing that he was a tough, no-quit bastard, but fast enough to be a living hell. I checked back once to see him dying two deaths: One was the physical death of trying to hang on, the other was the emotional death of getting crushed by someone he held in contempt and had fully expected to destroy.
We got back to our cars. He was giddy and could barely stand. “If you want to go knock out a couple more hours, I’m game,” I said. “But frankly you don’t look like you’ll be able to make the drive home without an oxygen tent.”
He tried to smile. “I think I’ve had enough for today.”
Many years later I realized that after almost thirty years of marriage I’d never taken a vacation or leisure trip with my wife that hadn’t included kids or parents. “Hey, honey,” I said. “Let’s go take a trip. Just you and me.”
She looked at me funny because she knew that this was going to be a sideways invitation to go hand up water bottles at a road race. “I might be busy. When? Where? And what for?”
“Let’s go to Taiwan,” I said. “We’ll stay in a super fancy hotel, you’ll get the spa package where they buff those four-inch calluses off your feet, and we’ll lounge around.”
“What about the bike racing?”
“There’s no bike racing.”
“Because,” I said, “it’s a super beautiful place. It’s mostly national park and rural and incredibly rich in Chinese culture–like the mainland before Mao destroyed everything with the Cultural Revolution. Plus the food’s awesome. And there are tons of great birds, 30 or 40 endemics.”
She was in a bind. It sounded good, but thirty years of hard knocks and disappointment are hard to overcome with a few glib words, especially from someone who majored in Glib. “Okay,” she said, “but how are we gonna get around?”
“I’ll learn Chinese.”
This sounded like the insane husband she was used to, whose grandiose delusions always turned into unrealistic plans that went down in flames. “In six months?”
“Sure,” I said. “How hard can it be?”
“But why Taiwan? It’s bicycles, isn’t it? Your bicycle is made there, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but that’s not the reason.”
“Because Jimmy was right.”
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