Life Without Seatbelts

When you first come to China the whole world is turned on its head and there’s a good bit of calling your sister to exclaim, “You can’t imagine what I saw today!” Trash bags are too thin, middle-aged women don’t know how to use a can opener, and it appears that the population is kept in check by removing all warning labels and letting natural selection take its course. But gradually the shock wears off and without realizing it you come to the day when you are getting a little peckish as you’re wandering through the street market, and you turn to your child with perfect seriousness and say, “They have scorpion on a stick. Do you want some?”

Recently our family visited Suzhou’s Lion Forest Garden, which is essentially a giant rock maze comprised of native rock formations that look like a human-sized coral reef. We spent hours gleefully ducking into caves, crossing rock bridges that spanned rock passageways, and scrambling up treacherous rock stairs, built narrow and irregular, and now polished to a glassy sheen by six hundred years of passing feet. I did see a couple of guardrails, but never on the flyover bridges, only on a couple of stretches right near the water. Owing to the water pollution most Chinese can’t swim, and apparently they’re more nervous about getting wet than falling eight feet to the rock walkway below. The guardrails I did see were small metal tubes set about three and a half feet off the ground, marginally safer for adults, but anyone smaller takes his own chances. Such a garden would never fly in the U.S. There would be petitions and lawsuits, and Mothers Against Bad Mothers all screaming about child endangerment. Porter said, “Can we go back to the Lion Garden?” “Sure,” I said, but I give my kids scorpions, so don’t pay attention to me.

This weekend the first line of Suzhou’s brand new subway system is going live so they’ve been testing if for the last two weeks. In many other countries new subways are tested with sandbags in place of people, what with underground glitches and all. “Sandbags? Pfft. We’ve got a billion people, what do we need with sandbags?” Each of the test riders received an apple or a bottle of water for their trouble. Some of them probably would have preferred fried scorpion, though that’s a relatively expensive delicacy, too expensive for such an insignificant sacrifice. The subway will simplify our lives dramatically and my husband’s been watching with great interest, keen to take the whole family on opening day. I see no reason to risk my life without even the promise of an apple, so I’ve balked and put him off. My kids just want to get back to the Lion Forest Garden and figure they could crash in a taxi, on an ebike or in the subway—just get us there, Mom, we can die on the rocks just the same. Well, when you put it that way.

Not too long ago, we were in a car with a new arrival from America who looked at the passing traffic with the same wide eyes we used to have. “Did you see that, did you see how close that was?” I had seen the near miss, but unless it endangers the paint it no longer really registers. I don’t know if I’ve become more jaded or more adventurous, but I’ve noticed that it’s easy to spot the foreigners that will either turn tail and run, or remain here but grow a deep disgust for China and Chinese people. I cannot afford to be that woman. A few months ago my eleven year-old son Chase popped a dried silk worm in his mouth and laughed at me when I refused. He told me they’re kind of bitter, but I think I need to taste it for myself.

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