Innocents Abroad


At the end of May we left our home in Suzhou, China to spend the summer in the U.S. where we landed in Columbus, Ohio, bought a dented Ford Explorer and hit the open road. It wasn’t long before my kids began to grin and poke each other, speaking out of the sides of their mouths as we bought gas or waited for a table.

“She’s a two.”
“He’s definitely a four.”
“EIGHT! Did you see that, an EIGHT.”

I had to ask. “What do you mean?”
“It’s the number of Chinese people they had to eat to get that big.”
“That’s so rude, you shouldn’t say that,” although the woman who did my nails in Tennessee was absolutely a twelve.

The transition from China to the U.S. is a pretty fair shock, especially if you start in the south where the word “barbecue” means something completely different than it does in the west, and where they prefer honest fatback to that namby-pamby I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter that is chemically closer to plastic than food. I was raised in the west, but my dad is Huckleberry Finn went to college, where he married a nice western girl who couldn’t understand why his watch moved slower than hers. We spent many summers in the south with our dad’s family, and as a child I hardly understood a word my grandma said, believing for many years that my grandfather was named “Author” rather than “Arthur,” which, of course, made perfect sense since my dad grew up to be a writer.

Our dented Ford Explorer had a temporary license plate—excuse me, tag, which the great state of Ohio asked that we tape into the back window, what with it being thickish paper. In Henderson, North Carolina we ran across a cop who took issue with it, lights flashing, pulling over, all that stuff.

“Where’s your tag?”
“Right here in the back window.”
“It’s supposed to be screwed to the plate.”
“What if it rains?”
“The law is it’s supposed to be screwed to the plate.”

Apparently Ohio and North Carolina don’t see eye to eye. Dutifully my husband handed over his license and registration to be matched in the officer’s computer. Who knew driver’s licenses were connected to passports.

“I see you’ve been in and out of China and Taiwan several times. Do you want to explain that?”

We pointed out that we live in China, and they went back to their car to do more checking. Porter began to complain that he had to go to the bathroom, and the officer’s partner loped up all nonthreatening, “Sorry this is taking so long.” Then he began to casually question the kids to make sure the adults matched with the innocent. “By the way, our son has to go to the bathroom,” we said. He went back to do more checking. Both officers returned all smiles and apologies and asked my husband to please step out of the vehicle and off to the back where they questioned him again. We finally got off with a warning, which was pretty nice, what with our being international criminals and all. We exited the freeway and drove straight into Henderson proper so we could acquire screws for our cardstock tag and Porter could go to the bathroom at the nearest fast food restaurant. There we were astounded to discover that in the United States of America you can now buy a bacon sundae.

That cop was probably a three.

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