It wasn’t something to be left behind. Carefully he split it in half and folded it to be able to take it on the plane. Rust appeared through the paint, showing the wear and tear, but for a bike from World War II China, it has held up very well.
So has Ke Zhang, the man who takes it to school every day. At 81 years old, Zhang has lived quite an exciting life. And he doesn’t plan on slowing down now. Zhang has enrolled in classes at Las Positas to continue to expand his mind as well as come back to the game he loves.
When Zhang was young, he was a big fan of basketball. It was a sport he said that he had always enjoyed.
“I loved it very much when I was a little boy,” said Zhang. “I played basketball, and I was maybe pretty good.”
After experiencing the horrors unleashed on China by the Japanese, Zhang found himself motivated to help his people. He buckled down and studied hard. When he graduated from the university as an engineer, Zhang was only 19.
Zhang worked at the Beijing Auto Factory, which later merged with an American company to help manufacture vehicles for the United States.
“The factory incorporated with AMC, the company that makes jeeps,” said Zhang. “I served as a special machine designer.”
After helping to make new machines and tools for the production floor, Zhang knew he wanted more. And so he cut his bike in half and came to America.
After arriving in the United States, he decided it was time to go back to college and learn. He started off at Laney College in Oakland, where he was told to enroll in the ESL program.
Zhang finished off the term, and his instructor told him he should keep advancing in his studies. He was proficient enough in his English that when the semester ended, his professor pulled him aside to talk.
“The instructor said ‘Your English is good,’” Zhang said. “You should skip one.”
Zhang decided to transfer to Las Positas after that and ended up taking a placement test to see where his English skills were.
He tested into ESL level three, which seemed odd because he had just finished four at Laney.
In his first semester at Las Positas, his instructor suggested that he drop the class he was in. His skills were good, but he didn’t test well.
So he studied hard and then took the placement test again. He was determined not to re-enter the level three class.
“I passed the assessment test with an 89,” said Zhang. “The professor let me skip three to go learn American literature and critical writing. That means I passed number four, five, six, and 1A.”
Zhang said he struggled a bit in his first English literature class. He wasn’t sure he could write poetry in English. But he soon found his words opened doors to his classmates, ones they didn’t know existed.
“I can only write in Chinese poetry,” Zhang said. “This was the first time for me.
“But I tried to write it. I wrote about the history of World War II. At that time Chinese people suffered at Japanese invasion. We do not have enough food to eat and all were hungry.”
After the workshop, where the poems are read out loud and students comment on them, the other students surrounded Zhang.
They wanted to know more about him and his stories from China during the time of war.
But for now, Zhang is happy with just continuing to learn at Las Positas. He is planning on registering for mathematics classes next semester where he can return to his engineering roots.
But his heart will always have a place to call home on the hardwood court. When he plays, he gives it everything he’s got.
And it shows.
“It’s not like he’s running away, he plays,” said classmate Aaron Tse. “He plays the whole game.”
And for the instructor who runs the class, Geoffrey Smyth, having Zhang serves as inspiration. He gets more animated watching Zhang playing basketball with those who are about a quarter his age.
“It fires me up just having him here,” Smyth said. “He gives a whole spirit to these guys. He’s just got this pleasant way about him.”
Sometimes Zhang will sit out of the game to catch his breath, something his busy schedule does not allow for much of.
After riding his bike to school for 40 minutes, he dives into a swimming class for an hour before jumping on the court.
But when he gets out there, he just gets involved in every play. He even gets knocked down, but that has never stopped him from getting back up and continuing to play.
“He’s got heart,” said classmate James Micael. “He’s got hustle.”
Even when he was hit by a car, Zhang never slowed down. He even refused to go to the hospital after his last accident.
“Four policemen said, ‘You are 81. You have to go see the doctor,’” Zhang said. “I refused.”
“I’ve been hit by a car three more times with no problems. It’s just a little blood.”
Zhang doesn’t act his age, and he doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.
“To be young is to be one of the motor gods,” said Zhang. “I always want to be young.”