It’s funny that until I had my daughter I had never once looked at the design of strollers as they rolled past me on the sidewalk.
Now, ever since our daughter Echo was born in January, I’ve been lusting for a three-wheeler, with shocks, adjustable handle, hand brake, large “pumpable” wheels, reversible seat (to switch from front to back-facing) that reclines for the wee ones but sits up for the toddlers, with a sunshade and a place for bags beneath, and in a flat color without the gaudy Chinese-style decals of cartoon characters on the awning…not that I have any requirements or anything!
If I could get chrome fenders and a hood ornament too, I probably would. I think this particular lust has replaced my desire to own a Harley Davison motorcycle. At least, for the time being!
China is a country full of knock-offs. Everyone here knows that to be true and so my Chinese husband and his parents have been adamant that we need to buy a stroller that wasn’t made in China. After all, they say, “made in China” doesn’t always mean solid, at least that’s what a car salesman told us when we asked his opinion about car seats. He flatly said that car seats available on the market here are not worth buying. He encouraged us to ask my Canadian parents to bring one over from North America when they came to meet their grandchild.
We listened to his advice and it arrived in late January in a big box off the plane, all up to spec for international road safety standards. And, guess what was written on the back of the car seat?
“Made in China.”
Yes, made but not used here. Like many Chinese-made items, it was made for export only. It’s proof that this country is capable of quality, it just doesn’t always choose to make that quality available to its masses.
Car seats are not mandatory here. There are no laws related to infants or children in cars, so most people just hold their children on their laps in moving vehicles.
And don’t even get me started about kids on motorcycles. I’ve seen as many as two adults and three children on a single motorcycle here, the wee ones wedged between or on the backs of the adults, with no helmets or worries in sight!
Speaking of motorcycles, our new stroller is German-made in a cool flat black with grey accents and is decked out with all my “required” elements. It even has a little plastic window on the awning through which Echo can look at the clouds. I got it secondhand from a popular listserv here in Beijing for a fraction of its original selling price. My mother-in-law was skeptical of buying secondhand, but this kind isn’t available here and I convinced her that “gently used” doesn’t mean we don’t want the best for our child.
All members of the Chinese side of this family were also worried about the three-wheeled stroller. I argued that the uneven and inconsistent sidewalks in Beijing would impede the small, swiveling front wheels common on the four-wheeled strollers. When we got it, I also mentioned that three-wheelers are great for jogging.
“Jogging?” my husband asked, incredulously, and then he and his mother laughed heartily at the “fun joke” I had made. “Whoever heard of someone jogging with their stroller and infant?” they asked between guffaws.
“People jog with their babies all the time back home!” I asserted. “It comes with straps and it’s safe for the baby because they’re secured in with an elaborate belt system. The large wheels make it a smooth ride and easy to push.”
Realizing I was serious, my husband and mother-in-law immediately forbade me to jog with Echo in fear of her safety. I don’t generally consent to Chinese rules, but I did notice my mother-in-law insisting on accompanying (monitoring?) me when we took her out in the new ride for the first time, smiling into the early spring sunshine.
And cultural contradictions emerged into the sunshine too, once more regarding concepts of safety.
We were walking along the sidewalk with my mother-in-law proudly pushing the stroller with a distinct Grandma peacock strut, and she suddenly veered off into the street. I asked her where she was going, alarmed, and she steered the stroller right into the erratic traffic of China’s capital, proclaiming over her shoulder that the streets were smoother for the wheels! I urged her back to the sidewalk, running ahead and putting myself between the stroller and the cars. “Have you seen the traffic in Beijing?” I asked her, rhetorically. I had to do this three more times. “Who cares if it’s a bumpier ride,” I said, taking over the reigns, finally. “It’s a safe bumpy ride!”
Now, back to the car seat.
In Chinese culture, a child usually does not leave the house for the first 100 days of life. We have been taking Echo out since she was just about a month old though. The associated fear is that a child that young will catch a cold from which they’re too small to recover. Despite colds being related to germs, cold (as temperature) is especially feared here and considered the biggest culprit for illness. So, babies like Echo who are born in the wintertime are bundled excessively before they emerge.
Each time Echo goes out, she is dressed in several layers, then wrapped in a thin blanket followed by a whole quilt. She is then wedged into a “baby nest,” a down-filled sleeping bag for outings about the width and size of a one-year-old. The entire ensemble makes her double in size!
(When she’s all dressed and ready to go, squirming in her bundle, I like to whisper to her that now she knows what Mommy feels like and why Mommy now really needs to jog!)
Now insert the notion of removing her from this warm nest to assemble her into a car seat and you can literally hear the Mandarin-accented gasps that followed. There I was when we drove somewhere with her for the first time, the only advocate of our foreign-purchased, Chinese-made car seat and the rest of the choir was insisting loudly that I couldn’t possibly put her at risk of the cold! But what about the cars, the traffic, and the road risk, I asked? She was safe enough in my arms, they insisted, and the risk of cold was far worse, they said, shuddering. They added, “Wait until the spring.”
So, it’s unsafe to put her in the car seat due to the cold, but it’s safe to hold her without protection in a moving vehicle? And it’s unsafe to jog with her strapped into a stroller but it’s safe to walk with her in the stroller in the street beside the rushing cars and motorcycles?
It is a constant, clanging, contradicting crescendo here between our accustomed cultural norms.
At least I know that everyone wants the best for this child. No one from either side of this cross-cultural divide wants to see her hurt or sick or at risk of either, even if our methods are so opposite.
As I gaze lovingly at our new stroller, I realize that this is all really about the balance—the balance not just between three wheels, but also between two very different parents and a new wee one out in front. And, let’s not forget about the shock absorbers. Our little Echo is going to need them. Around every corner of her childhood will surely be shocking discoveries about how our cultures differ. And we’ll help her absorb them all.
One thing we know for sure is that she will be solid with us, not to mention solidly loved ones. After all, “made in China” can mean quality, we know, especially when it comes to little people.
And by the way, from here on in now that warm weather has arrived, she’ll be strapped into that car seat!