Monday, April 16, 2018

Like Water In A Raging River

As young boys, my brother and I would contend over who got to stand on the transmission hump in the middle of the back seat floor of our family's Chevy Impala in order to have an unimpeded view out the front windshield. An accident or even a sudden stop could have easily launched our small bodies through the glass. There were lap belts, but they were more often than not lost beneath the seat cushion. Sometimes we wore them, but only for the game of buckling and unbuckling them. Few people, no matter their age, belted up. Today, of course, American kids are in car seats for a large part of their childhoods and I know few adults who don't automatically buckle up. This saves lives. It's a good thing.

Still, deaths by car accident remain one of the leading causes of childhood death in our country. And yet every day we put our kids in cars and drive them around, while fretting about things like "stranger danger," pointy bits, and tripping hazards. We worry that our child will be injured on a swing or slide or while using a hand tool, even as we place them in far greater statistical danger just driving them to school in the morning.

Gever Tulley, the founder of the Tinkering School, Brightworks School, and author of 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do), has coined a useful term, "dangerism," to discuss how a society or individual decides what and what is not dangerous, often relying upon rationalizations and fear rather than facts. One example he uses is to point out that Americans tend to keep their kids away from sharp knives until they are "old enough to handle them," yet even two-year-old Inuits are handed these very same tools to cut seal blubber. Every culture both under and over-estimates the risk of certain activities leading to such irrational things as removing swing sets from playgrounds while at the same time driving their children around in automobiles, a far greater danger.

I've had the opportunity to reflect upon the concept of dangerism these past few days while here in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to present at an early childhood education conference hosted by the South Saigon International School. I love few things more than exploring new places by foot, but doing so here is a harrowing experience. There are many videos of the phenomenon (like this one here) posted on the internet by westerners, but let me assure you that watching it from the comfort of your computer screen is nothing like finding yourself in the middle of it. Stop lights are optional, every traffic lane is two-way, sidewalks are extensions of the roadway, it's not unusual for people to ride their motorbikes right into shops, and the swarming buzz of their motors is incessant. One of my colleagues here told me that she lived in the city for a year before she stopped feeling like crying every time she crossed a street.

On Monday, I found myself on foot crossing a long bridge during rush hour. The sidewalk that was only about 18 inches wide which I had to share with a steady flow of motorbikes trying to get around the congestion. I had no where to go so I pressed myself into the railing to let them pass, turning my feet parallel to the wall in the hope of saving my toes. Amazingly, I still have all ten. Also amazingly, nearly every rider made eye contact with me as they passed, nodding and saying either "Sorry" or "Hello" as they passed, their friendly calmness in stark contrast to my sense of danger.

This is a clearly dangerous situation to this American, yet here were every day Vietnamese people, often four to a bike, often with young children and even babies on board, some with children even standing between the adult's legs, just going about their business with apparently no sense of danger at all. I have no conclusion to draw from this reflection other than to say I didn't see a single accident even though I was sure one was about to happen at any given moment. Far be it from me to judge another culture, but holy cow, what a way to live!

I spent most of the day yesterday walking around this sweltering and exciting city. I have to say that my own sense of danger has diminished quite a bit even as the reality of that danger hasn't. By the time I got downtown to take in some of the tourist attractions, I was feeling pretty confident, so much so that I gave tips to an American couple who were, it appeared, on the verge of tears as they attempted to merely cross from one side of the street to another. And while I'm sure that the incidence of injury and death by motorbike would be completely unacceptable at home, I found myself feeling joyful about the remarkable amount of beautiful cooperation required to make it all work and I must confess that there were moments when I felt that I was a part of it as I crossed the street with motorbikes flowing round me like water in a raging river.

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