When I go to China, I can always count on a couple of good taxi driver stories. Okay, I realize that taxi driver stories are kind of a cliche, but hey, Thomas Friedman has made a pundit fortune on them, so why not me?
Here's my first of the trip...
Story #1. BEIJING.
I needed to take a cab to get to the Beijing South Railway Station for a high-speed train to Shanghai. It's a long drive at best, in the far south of the city. Traffic across Beijing is generally pretty horrible (why I almost always opt for a subway), but I was leaving about noon for a 2:30 train, and I figured that time of day, it wouldn't be bad.
"Do you mind if I go a different way?" the cab driver asked me, meaning, not the typical direct route. "It's longer, but we'll get there faster."
Fine by me, I told him. You know better than I do.
I put him to be in his early forties, short, buzzed hair with only a little gray, tanned skin just starting to weather. We got to talking.
"You know what the problem with new Beijingers is?"
"You mean, waidiren?" People not born in Beijing. Migrants.
"Yes, waidiren. They aren't friendly. They don't really care about Beijing."
By this, I assumed that he had been born in Beijing, but I asked him anyway.
Yes, he was a Beijinger, he told me. Born and raised there. I've always enjoyed talking to Beijingers, because I was first in Beijing so long ago that I have some understanding of how drastically the city has changed. So we tend to have some things in common in spite of our differences, a memory of the city that the great majority of Chinese don't share.
We talked about a lot of things, some of them pretty typical: Are you married? Do you have children?
No, I told him.
"But why?" he asked me. "It's good to be married. My laobanr—" —basically, my old lady, my wife—"she is my best friend."
I gave him the usual answer. Life circumstances. You never know how things will work out. And so on. We talked more about family, about children, about age. About China versus America. The usual stuff.
"You know what the one of China's biggest problems is?" he said at one point. "Too many people."
This too is something that I've heard from a lot of taxi drivers. And no wonder. They're out there every day, trying to make a living driving through congested, smog-choked cities, where traffic laws tend to be more traffic suggestions, where there are just too many people in too many cars, and they aren't paid very much to do it.
You'll hear a lot of complaints from foreigners about Chinese taxi drivers, how they aren't friendly, how they'll rip you off, and I've had some of those experiences, but I've had more positive interactions than negative. This driver really knew his stuff. Suddenly we swooped onto a ramp that curved to the right, and there it was: the Beijing South Railway Station.
He grinned back. A guy who liked doing a good job.
Lisa…every other Wednesday...