“Yo just flag down any black cab, I don’t wanna stand out here all night and you know these fuckers are just gonna slow to a roll and stare at us instead of picking us up”.
That’s my roommate, Nick. We’re headed out to meet our friends at a local Western hotspot. It’s got a bar stocked with booze that at least mimics Western spirits, instead of just the Chinese brands of baijiu, or white spirits, that are so popular here. There’s a pool table, a menu with western foods like quesadillas or hamburgers, and the owners let us use the iPad to choose our own music. The flood of foreigners into the bar, Uptown, draws in a decent crowd of Chinese patrons that want to seem worldly and rub shoulders with foreigners so that they can snap photos and add them to their WeChat stories.
Nick makes a good point: Chinese cab drivers, at least in this province, don’t always like to pick up foreigners. I’ve chatted with some before about why this is, and the takeaway seems to be that they feel like we do when we get someone with a thick accent. Sure, we’re speaking their language, but sometimes they just don’t want to deal with the headache of deciphering what we’re saying. Black cab drivers on the other hand love us. They assume we don’t have a fucking clue what we’re doing and that they can rip us off to their heart’s content.
It’s already been 15 minutes of standing here in the cold rain trying to flag down any cab that will take us, and it’s fucking cold. Where we live it seldom gets below freezing in the winter, and ostensibly, that’s warmer than where Nick or I come from. The problem is that in Boston or Detroit, we have central heating. This concept was withheld from the people of Southern China for reasons I don’t even want to get into. The takeaway is that even though it hovers just above freezing in the winter, you never get warm, and I find myself homesick for a blizzard covered house. At least snow insulates things.
“Dude, here’s one, let’s just get in”. I’m inclined to agree, and we hop into the little black (literally, not just figuratively) cab. The driver doesn’t even seem to notice us at first, as he’s just checking his mirrors for traffic coming up on his blindside.
He turns his gaze to the rear view mirror and sees Nick, and handsome foreigner, and very “man”, has slid into the back seat. Here it comes…
“Oh shit, you’re foreign!”
It is I that responds “Yep, and you’re Chinese. Can we go?”
If seeing Nick, 6 foot tall with a big dimple in his chin, blue eyes, and an aquiline nose was disconcerting to this little old man, realizing that a giant ginger of 6’2” with a beard his viking ancestors would have envied had appeared in his passenger seat was downright shocking.
“Oh, fuck!” he exclaimed as his gaze ran up and down over me. These cars generally don’t fit my frame, and more than once a friend has been in stitches watching me get into or out of one of them.
“Oh fuck, indeed! Drive, my lord?” (Ok that’s not the best translation of the Chinese language title of shifu, but it’s technically correct, and I like it. Besides, I’m writing this story.)
He pulls slowly away from the curb, still relatively shocked, but coping with his new reality rather well. This is when I begin to suspect something is off. He continues, slowly but surely, at about 15 km/hr down our service street next to the highway, until he can turn off into a neighborhood. Looks like we are taking the scenic route through street walker territory. Don’t ask how I know this.
“Why’s he going so slow?” comes the query from the back seat.
“Dude, I dunno. Do I look like the black cab whisperer?”
“I just wanna fucking get there. We’re already late and I need a fucking drink”. To be fair, we’ve been in this town for about 6 months, and there were very few nights that he doesn’t need one. Shit, I’ve been sober for 5 and a half years, and I catch myself thinking that I need one more often than I’m comfortable with some days.
“Shifu, can you drive a bit faster?”
“Oh, sure, sure! Say, where do you want to go?”
Touche, shifu. I hadn’t actually said where we were going. Point, Chinese black taxi driver.
“We’re going to a bar on West Qian Ling Road at the intersection of Xi Mountain Road.” Fucking nailed it. Pronunciation was perfect. I’ve been practicing my directions in class with my tutor, and I’m super proud of myself.
“Fucking where?” Goddamnit. He’s staring at me with wide, watery eyes, completely perplexed. Maybe my tones were off. I say it again, and again, and one more time for good measure, changing the tones on each word in sort of a “throw it at the wall and see if it sticks” manner. Hey, it works for pasta, and after all this is where the Italians stole pasta from. The only way to convey how this might sound to a native speaker of Chinese, in English writing, would be as follows:
I wAnt tO go to QiaN linG roAd WEst.
i WANt to GO tO qianLing road weST.
I wAnT tO dIe WhY dId I mOvE hErE.
At some point I must have come close enough to it because he responds with “AH!” exclaimed right into my face. That’s when the smell of the baijiu hits me, full force. He slows the car to a crawl as he pulls to the curb. Confused, I ask what he’s doing, and he reaches into his coat and pulls out a flask.
“Wait, is that a fucking flask?!” I hear from the back seat.
“Yes, I believe it is. This dude is fucking LIT” I respond.
He takes a pull from the flask and then, courteously as can be, offers it to me. I respectfully decline the offer of alcohol from the man currently operating the motor vehicle that I’m riding in. He offers it to Nick, who does the same. He replaces the flask and pulls out a pack of cigarettes. He offers me one and I accept, as does Nick. It’s only polite, afterall.
He asks our names and where we are from as he flicks his bick and lights our cigarettes.
Now let me make sure to explain a finer point of culture at this juncture of the story. It’s rude to let someone light your cigarette without also holding your hand up as if to block the wind. Once it’s lit, you gently tap the back of their hand so that they let the flame die. To just stick your face out with a cigarette in your lips is presumptuous, and to just put a hand out for the lighter denies the other man the chance to show hospitality by lighting your cigarette for you. That’s why Nick had to lean forward into the front seat and could smell the alcohol on the man’s breath for himself.
“Jesus Christ, he smells like a distillery” he laughed. The theater of the absurd that our lives have turned into makes us both laugh as Nick settles back into his seat. He’s no longer upset that we’re late, and quite frankly neither am I. Shit just got interesting.
The man packs away his cigarettes and flask, and returns his attention to the road. Forgetting that he never placed the car in park, he tries to slip it into gear and stalls out. This gets even more laughter from Nick and I, and though he’s a bit confused, he merrily joins in.
Here we all sit, in a tiny Chinese car, on a side street of a shady neighborhood, laughing like lunatics, as our driver drunkenly tries to get the car started so that we can be delivered to our destination.
I’m probably going to die tonight.
He finally figures out the driving thing again, and we start our journey to the West Qian Ling Road.
“So, you’re foreign, but where are you from? America?”
“That’s right, we are Americans.”
“And what are you doing here? Vacation?”
“No, we work here. We’re English teachers” Nick replies.
“Oh, wow! You’re Chinese is so good! You’re very “man!” he exclaims. “And you, you’re very strong! I can tell by looking!” he glances at me again, smiling. It’s only later that I’ll find out that when some Chinese people look at me and say how strong I must be that they’re calling me fat, and that’s pretty fair. For now though, I’m content.
He asks our names, cities of origin, details of our lives. It’s all pretty typical small talk. He’s still going about 15 km/hr on a street that is clearly marked at 50. This is so ridiculous and entertaining to us that we don’t even care.
Eventually Nick realizes that we aren’t going the right way and tells him. He curses, laughs, and stops to get his bearings in the city. He’s a rather jovial old man, constantly laughing, singing to himself, and trying to make as much conversation as possible. A popular song comes on the radio “My Little Apple”, and Nick starts humming the tune. This gets the little old man (I can’t even begin to guess his age…after 50 most Chinese men begin to look like they’re 100, and stay that way til they die) really excited, and he insists we sing along together. He cranks the music and I hope he doesn’t realize we only know the chorus, and barely that much. He stops this whole time to really focus on his singing.
After much confusion, 3 stops to light more cigarettes, and a few more pulls from the flask, he gets us to our destination. We could have walked there in 30 min, and we arrive 45 min after we left.
As we get out of the car I ask how much the ride will be.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, how much money do you want for the ride?”
“What money? What are you talking about? This isn’t my car, it’s my daughter’s.”
“I have to pay for a taxi ride. Normally a black cab ride would be 15 RMB from my house to here” I say. I haven’t been drinking, but trying to have a conversation with this man makes me feel like I have.
“But, my foreign friend, I’m not a taxi driver” he exclaims.
“Fucking, what?!” Nick and I have this down almost in perfect unison.
“I just saw you on the street and thought you might need a ride! Now we are friends! I have foreign friends!”
Nick doubles over with laughter next to the car as the realization dawns over us that we didn’t hail a black taxi, but we just got into a car not with a black cab driver looking to make a little extra money in a side hustle, but with a drunk old man that stole his daughter’s car and went for a late night booze cruise. No wonder he was so confused and excited by the whole thing. He’s managed to sneak out and go for a joy ride and in the meantime made two new foreigner friends. His mahjong playing friends in the park won’t fucking believe this.