By Peter Fimrite
Life, to Zilong Wang, is like a bicycle. To stay balanced, he keeps rolling forward — even when the bicycle is stolen by a homeless guy on a San Francisco street corner.
Wang, a 23-year-old from Inner Mongolia, China, completed a 3,400-mile bicycle trip across America last summer, a journey that for him was a spiritual and intellectual awakening, and never once locked his bike.
When he arrived in San Francisco, the $1,500 bicycle was promptly stolen.
It was a rude introduction to San Francisco, but Wang is not one to let such an indignity ride. He turned it into a learning experience — immersing himself in the street culture, infiltrating a bicycle theft ring and cozying up to the kingpin. Then, through a Good Samaritan, he got his bike back.
His courage, diligence and resourcefulness are not a surprise to those who know him. He is a man everyone remembers.
“He’s very sensitive, very plugged in and engaged in a wonderful way,” said Joel Roos, whose family is hosting Wang in their Bernal Heights home. “He’s beyond existential.”
Wang’s journey first grew roots in Shanghai when he was completing his secondary education, dreaming about going to an American college.
“People, after suffering through that system, really long to practice their creativity,” he said of growing up in authoritarian China. “America has the best higher education in the world.”
He spent a year as an exchange student in Germany and then enrolled at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., where he studied history and philosophy. He chose the school, he said, because of its reputation as a bastion of progressivism, a label that manifests itself in gender-neutral bathrooms and other politically correct causes.
He was a star almost from the beginning, serving as a school trustee and as the commencement speaker at his May 18 graduation ceremony, where he had the audience roaring with laughter at his self-deprecating humor and poignant insights.
After graduation, he got an internship at Blu Skye Consulting, a San Francisco firm that helps businesses develop sustainability programs. Sigmund Roos, the former president of the Hampshire College board, told his brother last spring about an “extraordinary” man.
“Sig called us up and said there is a young man, Zilong, who has an internship in San Francisco and is looking for a host family,” said Joel Roos, who lives with his wife, Laurie Isenberg, and their 13-year-old son, Will. “My brother said, ‘Don’t miss this opportunity. … He will change your life.’ ”
He has done that and more, according to every member of the Roos family.
The cycling adventures of Zilong Wang began in May when a college friend gave him a bicycle as a graduation gift. He promptly decided to ride it across the United States to San Francisco in time for his internship.
“I wanted to see America from the ground up, to feel it and smell it,” he said. “I wanted to go on a personal, spiritual journey as a cleansing.”
Wang passed the time on his cross-country pedal listening to audiobooks of the Bible, the Quran, “Moby-Dick” and the Book of Mormon.
“I didn’t know where I would end up at night,” he said, “so I knocked on doors and asked if I could stay in people’s back yards.”
He said one in five people allowed him to sleep on their property and half — about 60 families — put him up inside their homes and then served him dinner and breakfast. He said he stayed with Christians, Mormons, atheists and a lot of farmers, and did not encounter a single malicious or bad person.
Wang’s blog entries during the trip serve as a kind of mirror, packed with insightful observations about America as seen through the fresh, un-jaded eyes of a foreigner.
“I am amazed at the central role religions play in the United States, especially compared to China,” he wrote. “Many people I’ve stayed with have explicitly attributed their willingness to host me to their faith.”
In contrast to the core goodness of religion, he noted, was the peculiar attachment Americans have to their lawns.
“Lawn mowing seems to be the No.1 obsession of American homeowners,” he wrote. “I have seen more people mowing their lawn than those who are just simply relaxing on their porch. … American families want ‘nature’ to surround their house, but only ‘nature’ in its subdued and commodity form, instead of its natural state.”
He arrived in San Francisco in late August after 74 days riding in sandals over mountain passes, through cities and across deserts, enduring scorching temperatures, rainstorms and biting cold.
The theft, on Sept. 11, was a kind of awakening. He used a soft cable lock to secure his bike to a parking meter in front of a fruit seller at 25th and Mission streets. It was only a five-minute stop to get some fruit. But when he emerged, his bike was gone. The thief had simply lifted the lock over the meter.
Bicycle theft is a growing problem in San Francisco as more people than ever hit the pedals, using newly dedicated lanes and other cycling amenities. More than 4,000 bicycles, worth an estimated $4.6 million, were stolen in San Francisco in 2012, a 70 percent increase over the past five years. That’s more bike thefts than iPhone snatchings, according to a report released this year by the San Francisco budget and legislative analyst.
“I was sad to lose the bike that went across the country with me,” Wang wrote on his blog, blaming himself for his lack of vigilance. “As I ran around the block, trying to find any trace of the bike, I realized that I would never be able to see the city in the same light again. I would always be scanning the streets for my lost bike … and not being able to enjoy the beauty of the city. In some ways, the lost sense of safety and peace of mind were even worse than the lost material.”
True to his personality, he turned a negative situation into a positive experience.
Wang filled out a police report, obtained surveillance footage from the adjacent grocery store and determined that the thief was a homeless man known for stealing bikes.
He wasn’t confident the police would be able to find his beloved “dragon horse,” so he went underground, pretending he wanted to buy a stolen bicycle. He talked to a dozen homeless people and was eventually directed to what he described as a “stolen bike exchange” at the Civic Center.
Infiltrated bike ring
Wang infiltrated this clearinghouse and found out that it was being run by a guy named Cory, who was buying and selling stolen bicycles from all over the city. One person was offering to sell a fancy carbon fiber racing bike for $100, Wang said.
What Wang didn’t know while he was conducting his sleuthing operation was that a Good Samaritan had spotted a man pushing the bike on the street near where she works at TimBuk2 in Hayes Valley. The woman, Vanessa Christie, is a bicycling advocate and thought the man looked suspicious. She followed him, eventually grabbed the bicycle and threatened to call the police, causing the man to run away. She then contacted police through the department’s new Twitter account, @sfpdbiketheft.
Officer Matt Friedman, who started the Twitter account, matched the bicycle to the police report and contacted Wang, returning his bicycle within 48 hours. In exchange, Wang gave Friedman the details about the theft ring.
“It’s a very unique story with this gentleman and how he got his bike back,” said Friedman, who shared the theft clearinghouse information with a Tenderloin detective who handles bike theft in the area. “In the city, the cycling community is extremely passionate and they have worked with us and taken great strides to be part of the solution. This is a good example of that.”
It is also unusual, Friedman said, because many people do not follow up when their bicycles are stolen. There are currently some 800 recovered stolen bicycles sitting in an evidence warehouse because there is no way to determine who owns them, he said.
Wang, whose internship at Blu Skye was recently extended indefinitely, said his spiritual journey of discovery came to fruition when his bicycle was returned, giving him more insight into his relationship to the material world and, ultimately, humankind.
“What was restored was not just the bike, but also the faith in humanity,” Wang said. “It made me realize that for every one bad guy out there to hurt you, there are 10 good people out there to help you. … Once again, I am able to appreciate the beauty of the city, instead of watching out for the stolen bike.”
— To read Wang’s blog, go to: www.zilong.be/2013/09/the-journey-continues-bike-stolen-and.html
— Reach Peter Fimrite at firstname.lastname@example.org