Talking to taxi drivers

7 Mar

Shanghai has the best taxi system in China.  There are numerous competing companies and generally high standards within the industry.  Because of the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010 there is also now a hotline that you can call for help in English or Japanese and on each taxi receipt the taxi number and contact information is printed, just in case you leave something in a cab.  In addition, unlike the majority of other cities, there is a hotline to order a taxi that most of the time (unless it is raining during rush hour) will work.

I’m not nearly as intimidated by taking a taxi as I was when I first moved to Shanghai.  My original apartment was on a street called Feng Yang Road, but unfortunately there is another street called Fen Yang Road – and the two are not close by.  One dropped “g” meant I was going a long way out of my way.

Five years later, I am much more comfortable with the layout of Shanghai and more confident in my language ability.  Depending on my mood and the taxi driver sometimes we’ll get into conversations.  We even have one driver that we’ve befriended and if I’m going to the airport or somewhere pretty far away, Li will call him to pick me up which is great.  Aside from that driver though, typically they’ll ask the same several questions to start out:

1) What country am I from?

2) What am I doing in Shanghai? or Do I like Shanghai?

3) How long have I been here?

4) Where have I studied my Chinese?

Once we get past those particulars any topic of conversation could be brought up.  I normally try to steer to things like the weather (how American of me), but every once in a while I’ll get a taxi driver who takes more of a political bent.  Recently I had a very strange taxi conversation on my way between two client meetings.

The driver started telling me how corrupt Chinese politicians are and how there was not even one single good person in Chinese politics.  I tried to defend that for a while, saying with so many politicians there has to be at least one good one, but he wouldn’t hear it.  Then, when that topic was finally exhausted he started extolling the virtues of Hong Kong because it had been run by the British.  I wasn’t sure how to answer and pretended to get very busy with my phone, but he just kept talking.  Finally he told me that he wanted the American army to take over Shanghai.  He said that he would welcome the change and he believed that would fix the corruption and straighten out the city.  According to him, all normal people would welcome such a change.

When I finally got out of the cab and had a chance to absorb the conversation later that night it struck me on a couple of levels. The first – I am betting that individual had an unpleasant experience with some (or many) government departments or officials recently.  The second – was that I understood what he was talking about!  That in and of itself is a victory.  The third was how sad that it was – he was pretty much giving up on his own government and people to solve the big problems that exist.  The idea that “someone else” could fix everything, instead of taking responsibility for what happens is probably not the best signal for China’s future development.  It worries me.

Who knew that talking with a taxi driver would have me considering China’s feasibility as a country and its future economic development?  Have you ever had such an experience – one where two very disconnected things seem to merge and point you in a different direction?  Please share.

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8 Responses to “Talking to taxi drivers”

  1. sarahinguangzhou March 7, 2013 at 3:07 pm #

    This is where there’s a definite advantage to not speaking Chinese (or pretending not to at any rate) so that you can avoid the taxidriver smalltalk.
    Actually I’ve met a lot of Chinese with his attitude. People say I’m very negative (I prefer to think I”m a realist) about China but actually so are a lot of Chinese. You’re powerless to make any changes if you don’t even get to vote.

    • gkm2011 March 7, 2013 at 8:16 pm #

      Yes, but he didn’t want to vote, he wanted someone else to just deal with it. I think the question will be at what point people actually are willing to do something. I don’t know when or if that will be.

  2. Mona March 10, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

    I like this post and have been thinking about your question in your conclusion and I don’t have an answer. Interesting description of your conversation with him.

    • gkm2011 March 10, 2013 at 10:18 pm #

      Good to see you back! I don’t know the answer either, but I think it is worth to ask.

  3. stupiduglyforeigner March 11, 2013 at 1:35 am #

    Nice work on the vocab skillz. My cabbies would always realize that my political understanding in Korean was pretty low and would prattle on anyway, but I was somwhat glad I didn’t really understand until we moved back around to talking about food or TV.

    • gkm2011 March 11, 2013 at 9:05 pm #

      Yes, sometimes not understanding can be a good thing! The weather, food,…

  4. Naomi Baltuck March 11, 2013 at 5:04 pm #

    How interesting. I love talking to people, learning about their perceptions, hearing their stories!

    • gkm2011 March 11, 2013 at 9:06 pm #

      Yes, I finally feel my Chinese is getting to that point so looking forward to many more conversations!

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