Saturday, June 17, 2017

On Minivans, 三轮车's, and Being Totally Normal

Back when we first got our 三轮车
This past week I have been playing at being an American mom. I do feel a bit like a kid playing house. “Hey everyone!  Look at me, driving along in my air conditioned minivan, sipping my coffee, rocking along to annoying kid songs and 80’s and 90’s music. Don’t I look normal? I’m so normal you’re not even looking.”

When I was first adjusting to China, I always felt most in tune with the culture when winding through chaotic traffic on a bicycle. This was back in the day when almost everyone was on bicycles and motorbikes and cars were the definite minority.  
This is what foreigner parking looks like in China!
Even now, bouncing along in our 三轮车 (three wheeled electric cart), driving down the road makes me feel connected.  Our city is full of these carts. Tiny, super slow ones that look like an oversized tricycle with an “old person” seat in the back, pick-up truck sized ones packed high with deliveries, and sometimes ones like ours filled with a family.  Whatever the size, they bounce and jolt and rattle and clank along, bridging the gap between bicycle and car.

Our 三轮车 has been a lifesaver with three kids.  I occasionally did two kids on a bike, but once they get big enough that isn’t too easy - or safe.  I think of our 三轮车 as the equivalent to a van.  We can pile all the kids in the back or fill it up with groceries on my bi-monthly supermarket trips.

But actually I realize, it’s not quite the same thing as a van.  For one thing, it is about half the size of a compact car.  If Kevin is driving, the girls and I can all squeeze onto the benches in the back with our knees touching. We always drive it at full speed, which varies from somewhat faster than a bike to somewhat faster than walking, depending on how many people it is carrying.  And it is bumpy, very bumpy.

While we have pretty successfully winterized our vehicle with a canvas cover for the back and a blanket type drape in the front, it is far from climate controlled.  Long about December, we pile on all our winter gear, reluctant to leave any skin exposed to the 13* wind.  
...but still pretty cold!
As summer heats up in Georgia, I am really appreciating the ability to hop in the car and turn up the A/C.  Driving around in my parent’s super cool minivan, I am not only protected from weather but also from noise and other people.  Granted, there probably wouldn’t be nearly as many people staring at me here (because I am doing such a good job at being normal), but even if they wanted to stare, they’d only get glimpses through the window as we sped past.  Did you know that you can’t even see inside tinted windows?  Crazy, right?  It’s like driving along in your own little private world all the time.

I can settle back in the cushioned seat, listening to music or to the quiet (or more likely to an endless stream of chatter), practically gliding over the road.  I can sip from my coffee conveniently placed in my cup holder right beside me.  This is a big disadvantage of a 三轮车 - not being able to drink coffee while driving.

As a person with a ravenous appetite for quiet, I really appreciate the relative isolation the car can provide.  You could pick up coffee, food, medicine, money, and groceries without even leaving the comfort of your isolation.  Some days I would love not having to interact with the world.

And yet, as we bounce slowly along in our 三轮车, we memorize the little details of our drives.  We wave at our fruit lady at her roadside stall. We pull off to grab a baked sweet potato from the cart.  We swerve in and out of traffic and around holes and sometimes down the wrong side of the road (if that’s a thing), because we aren’t yet confined to the more ordered rules of cars.  

We enter into the fullness of the seasons - like it or not - the bite of winter, the autum crispness.  We smell the air - coal in the winter, flowers in the spring.  Our transportation doesn’t isolate us from our world but connects us to it.  While every day, more and more cars enter the road, the road rhythm of China still follows the tradition of bicycles and motorbikes and 三轮车.

In the dead of winter, covered by hats and scarves and masks, with only a tiny bit of eye showing, we bounce down the road in our 三轮车.  And for a moment, we are almost normal.
Totally normal, right?