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Published: April 22nd 2012
A Chinese knot is a common decoration in Chinese taxis.
My reflections on China usually have to do with people I knew or things I saw, and most of those memories come from the perspective of standing at attention in a hotel lobby. Working for 13 months in a hotel, the landscape of my memory is filled with rooms, halls, passages, elevators. But in telling stories of my time in China, I notice that a pattern emerges: many interesting experiences took place in or while hailing a taxi.
Hailing a taxi in Hohhot, under normal conditions, was not hard. As a "convenience"-oriented American, one of my guilty indulgences was taking a taxi when I needed to go downtown, rather than taking the bus (even though the bus would have saved me a lot of money). There were some practical reasons for this. As a blonde-haired laowai
, I tended to attract attention. Buses are notorious hotspots for pickpocketing, and I always felt more secure that I would not be targeted if I was with a more street-savvy-looking Chinese friend. Maybe this was a false sense of security, but in any case taxis felt safer to me when friends were not present.
That said, the aforementioned blonde hair was both a
Bike sales seem to be thriving, even with the growing number of cars on the road.
blessing and a curse when hailing taxis. I certainly noticed that drivers chose me over other people on the sidewalk on more than one occasion, but they also usually looked apprehensive when I boarded, as if anticipating linguistic issues because I just looked too foreign. A basic command of Mandarin (and an early effort to memorize all the local store and university names) made this a moot point. As soon as the driver hit the gas pedal and started the meter, he complimented my Chinese and promptly began the standard interrogation:
Are you a student?
You work here? So you're a teacher.
Not a teacher?! Then where do you work?
And then came questions about my salary, my nationality, etc. I was never asked my weight or height, which apparently are as non-taboo a topic as salary for conversation with foreigner; but I got asked just about everything else. What did I think of Hohhot? What did I think of China? Why didn't I work somewhere better, like Shanghai? I think I got asked about my personal journey and opinions by more taxi drivers than coworkers. Maybe this is because the workplace can be very political:
I found friendship next to impossible in my own department but easy in other areas of the hotel, where I was not in direct competition with anyone.
When I refer to the driver as "he," this is because in most cases it was indeed a man at the wheel. This was in stark contrast to my experience studying in Tianjin, where maybe half the cabbies were women. The one time I got a woman cabby in Hohhot, I was thoroughly impressed. She was wearing driving gloves to keep the sun off her hands (a typically feminine consideration in China). I asked her how long she had been a taxi driver; she told me ten years.
Almost every cab ride was interesting and different, filled with conversation from people who came from all walks of life. I once got a cabby who had an Arabic letter hanging from his rearview mirror, rather than the ubiquitous Zhongguo Jie
or Chinese knot. I had a few Hui
friends; I knew my way around the qingzhen
(or halal) restaurants in town. When I asked him if he was Hui
ethnicity, however, he lit up like I had just said the most astute thing he had ever heard.
There were misadventures too, of course, ranging from bad drivers to taciturn and hostile ones, and just plain absurd situations, as well. The first (and most unpleasant) was a driver who got a call from Somebody Important (I'm guessing his wife) and dumped me on the next street corner. He didn't ask me to pay, but as it was a very busy traffic hour I was not at all sure I would get another cab and I was miles from home. Fortune smiled however, perhaps aided by blonde hair.
The best misadventure was the time I got in the cab, the driver asked, "Where to?" and I told him the name of the hotel. He started driving, then after a pause asked, "Where's that?"
At first I found this question funny, but then I realized I had by no means mastered local geography, and could not tell him. I even failed to direct him to the right place because I was much father afield than usual. After deciding that I had no idea where we were in relation to the hotel and telling him so, he calmly pulled to the side of the road, hailed another taxi, asked them if they knew the hotel, then ushered me into the other vehicle. "No charge," he told me. I was very touched by his generosity and kindness in assisting me.
And finally, while most drivers at first assumed my Chinese was minimal, on a busy day when people were doubling and tripling up in sharing taxis a particularly harried-looking driver pulled up and without hesitation yelled at me through the passenger window: "Guniang! Qu nar?"
(Girl! Where are you headed?)
I was exceedingly amused by his use of the word guniang
, which I had never learned in a Chinese class and which is much more colloquial than any of the terms I had learned before coming to China. I told him I was going to the mall. He said his passengers were going the other way, sorry; and off he sped into the chaotic streets of the city, not knowing he had paid a foreign guniang
something of a compliment by acting completely normal, like it was all in a day's work.
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