Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Constant Calculations


Sometimes I feel like I’m engaged in a constant cost-benefit analysis here in China. Take, for example, our trip on Sunday to Berkley’s soccer game. The league is hosted by the Shanghai American School (SAS), which is located out in the boonies. We basically have two options to get there: take the metro to the boys’ school and then take the school bus to SAS or we can take a cab directly there. The first option would take close to two hours; since the games start at 10:00 am, we’d have to leave pretty early on a weekend morning to get there. The second option only takes about a half hour. However, it’s a far riskier proposition, as cabs in China pretty much never have working seat belts in the back seat. So, the analysis is – do we take the longer, but safer route or do we take the shorter, but riskier route? Now, in the U.S., I would NEVER allow my kids to ride in a car without a seat belt, but we do that here all the time. In fact, we do it anytime we get in a moving vehicle here (as an example, the university driver met us at the airport when we arrived in Shanghai, but we had so much luggage that the four of us had to fit on a small 2.5 person bench in his minivan; rather than offending the university by declining the ride, Berkley sat on my lap – with no belt for any of us – the whole ride to our apartment). So of course, on Sunday morning, we took the cab.

At the game, I talked to one of the parents about this as we watched the kids play in the newly chalked field lines. The person who had chalked the lines was overzealous in the application of chalk, resulting in piles of white powdery stuff that were basically kid magnets – how could you resist making a huge billowy mess? We both agreed that in the U.S., we’d probably let the kids keep playing; they weren’t doing anything wrong aside from making a mess. But here in China, who knows what’s in that “chalk” – it could contain any number of really bad things. As my fellow parent noted, China still uses all sorts of products that have been banned in the U.S., including pesticides that are known to be seriously bad for you. This time, then, we erred on the side of safety and made the kids stop.

And so it is with just about everything here - constantly questioning the risks associated with engaging in so many activities. While picking up a jar of jelly the other day, I noticed that a Chinese woman was taking pictures of the shelf of jelly. Hmmm – had she never seen jelly before? Was she engaged in some sort of investigative reporting? Do I really want to buy that jar of jelly? Or there was the time when we flagged down a tuk-tuk-like cab in X’ian. As we rode in the space in the back (which was enclosed by hanging plastic curtains), we realized the gas cap was off the tank (which was inside said curtains), filling the space with gas fumes. I suppose we could have hopped out when she pulled over to pick up a massive piece of foam (which she folded up and stuck in with us), but you know – we were already half way there. What’s a few more minutes of gas fumes and risk of explosion when there's a huge piece of combustible material crammed in with us?

Now, to be fair, some of these calculations lead us to engage in riskier behaviors that also have a lot of benefits. When we arrived here, we made the decision to allow the kids FAR more independence here than we would at home. We figure since they’re typically the only white kids around, they’re usually the object of much attention, so it would be pretty noticeable if anyone tried to drag them off. Sometimes we even take this a bit too far as with the time we stopped for a bowl of noodles in the Muslim Quarter in X’ian. The boys really couldn’t stand the smell of the joint, and we didn’t want to listen to them complain, so we gave them 10 kuai to shop for Terra Cotta warriors and sent them off alone (with orders not to cross any streets) down one of the most chaotic street markets we’ve ever seen. We told one of our fellow Fulbright parents, and they were more than slightly horrified by this. But let me tell you – the boys have completely flourished with all this independence. They’re more confident and responsible, and I couldn’t be prouder of them.

Doug and I sometimes joke that by living here, we’re shaving a few years off the boys’ lives. Obviously, we hope that’s not true. But I guess if it is, the calculation we’ve made is that we hope in the years they do have, our time here will give them the experience and confidence to engage in their own cost benefit analysis and make choices that on the surface may seem crazy, but in the end, pay off with better than expected results.

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