Sunday, July 15, 2012

To China With Love Part II: Taxis

One good thing about living in China is taking taxis. Maybe things have changed since I lived there eleven years ago, but back in 2001 taxis were cheap, ubiquitous, easy, and safe. I never felt lost or afraid (except when I went to Ancient Culture Street after hours) because I knew I could always hop on a taxi, say the name of my apartment complex (or better yet flash the card with the Chinese on it) and go home. 

I had a complicated relationship, however, with the group of taxi drivers who always waited outside my apartment. In a way, I loved them. They were always there. They were nice and they always took me where I wanted to go. They became familiar to me, and I to them. And this was the problem. With that familiarity came a predictability that I was somewhat ashamed of.

Listen, I'm not proud of the fact that I went to the Crystal Palace (fancy ex-pat apartment building with international grocery store in lobby), purchased, and ate a Haagen Dazs bar every day I lived in China. Some people will tell you that they went to an ancient tea house and lazily passed the day away sipping lotus flower tea, reading Chinese newspapers, and having deep discussions with the local elders every day. But that wasn't me. I was in survival mode, and Haagen Dazs was one of my coping mechanisms.  And those taxi drivers knew this, and teased me about it.

"Crystal Palace!" they would jeer when I walked out the door. Or sometimes they yelled the name of the other fancy ex-pat apartment building with an international grocery store in the lobby. "Olympic Towers!" "Hyatt!"  They would always yell this to me like they had me all figured out.  And they did! And I hated it and was so self-conscious. 

So I started lying to them, defiantly saying, "No, flower street!" They would act surprised, drive me to flower street, then, when the coast was clear, I would get in another taxi and head on over to the Crystal Palace. I did this a lot, but it became exhausting, not to mention expensive. So I gave up after a while.

"Crystal Palace!?" I'd hesitate, then look down and in a defeated whisper mutter, "yes, please."

Taxis really were a huge part of my China experience.  One of our best friends in China was our taxi driver, Yu Jun, who stalwartly drove us an hour out of town to attend church every Sunday. One of my biggest regrets in life occurred with a taxi driver, to whom I yelled "screw you!" after a heated debate over the bill. I really wish I hadn't yelled that. It's the worst thing I've ever done, I think, especially since the difference was barely even two U.S. dollars. (There's just this feeling when you are in China of not wanting to be the stupid foreigner who everybody can rip off. It can possess you if you allow it to. I say, let them rip you off! What's a few dollars in the grand scheme of things? I learned this the hard way, though.) 

One time I stayed at a friend's house watching movies until two in the morning. I was not sure exactly how I was going to get home at such a late hour, but luckily there was an old yellow bus taxi out on the street. I flagged it down, said my apartment name, and the man dropped me off. I looked in my wallet and realized I didn't have any small bills, and the man was out of change. I was totally prepared to just have him keep the change (the ride was 3 yuan and I had a 50), but he waved it away and let me take the ride for free. This was very touching. A lot of things like this happened to me in China.

Taxi drivers were endearing middle aged men who chain smoked and probably had a wife and child to support at home. They changed the radio station when I got in the car, trying to find something that a foreigner would like. One time during my long ride out to teach English at Nankai University, an exuberant driver sang the words to a techno song I had never heard before. There were only two words in the song, and I'm sorry to say that those words were "house sex." They just said those words over and over. So there I was, sitting in the back of this taxi while the driver (blissfully ignorant of what the lyrics meant) repeated those words in a loud voice over and over again. I think he was totally trying to show off and I am sure he would have been embarrassed if he knew what he was saying. 

I always felt a camaraderie with taxi drivers. After all, taxi drivers were with me everywhere I went. They shared in my adventures. They knew my patterns and habits. Their world of barely controlled chaos, swerving through streets, dodging bicyclists, pedestrians, and other taxis, forcing their way into the massive wave of moving things, and then out again, became my world, too. I often cringed and said silent prayers in the back seat, but somehow I knew I would be safe in the care of those drivers, who became surrogate fathers to me as I made my way around town, going from one Haagen Dazs bar to the next.


  1. I'm still unbelievably impressed that you have had such adventures and such a life in exotic and enigmatic China. Even movies about China worry me, but you packed up your bags and your hair care products and ventured away across the world to a land, not at all in my ken, all for love and Haagan Dazs, or for the love of Haagan Dazs? You were and are amazing.