The Tyranny of Chinese Taxis

fullsizeoutput_1015Ask any Westerner in China about hailing a taxi, and you will be regaled with a story. Everyone in China has a taxi story, and the narratives can veer precipitously (like cars) between hilarious and terrifying.

The most common tale is one of passive woe. Hailing a cab can be frustrating for foreign nationals who are visibly not Asian. I can’t count the times I’ve stood on the sidewalk trying to catch a cab, only to have a clutch of empty ones drive by or switch off their rooftop “available” lights on approach. It’s impossible not to imagine with empathy the experience of African-American men trying to hail a cab in New York City, and more than once I’ve stood on the sidewalk reflecting back on Brent Staples’ insightful essay, Black Men and Public Space, a strange experience for a white woman anywhere.

This particular problem – a product of Chinese xenophobia and general indifference – was front and center during a recent weekend trip to Beijing, where I planned to meet up with a Shanghai friend. Before arriving, we actually strategized around our fear that catching a street-side taxi might be impossible in China’s capital city, which is considerably less hospitable to foreigners than Shanghai.

Although it may sound melodramatic, our decision was based entirely on my friend’s last weekend trip to Beijing three years ago. She and another friend, accompanied by her 6-year-old daughter, found themselves freezing and stranded one night, in an unfamiliar part of the city, after a late dinner. Beijing taxi drivers simply refused to stop for them. When panic and desperation eventually set in, the three of them forcibly climbed into a slowing private vehicle owned (and driven) by a random Chinese family. My friends showed the family their destination card and, after a bit of mayhem, resolutely refused to get out of the car until the family drove them back to their hotel. Were tears involved? I’m not sure, but the family complied.

Carjacking. That’s what Chinese taxis can do to a person.

The Great Wall of China: A solid metaphor for the East/West cultural divide

This kind of unpredictability with taxis is generally only a problem getting home from a random location. Finding a taxi outside a residential compound or a hotel is easy. During a recent evening when we couldn’t hail a taxi on the road in front of our apartment, we walked a couple blocks to a nearby Hyatt and co-opted the concierge to get one for us. In China, this falls into the category of using our white privilege to compensate for our white disability.

In the three years since my friend’s carjacking incident, ride sharing has emerged in China in the form of a merger between Didi and Uber (China’s way of getting Uber under its control). An English version of the Didi app has helped reduce foreign bias since the drivers don’t know who they are meeting until they arrive. They are stuck with you.

The arrival of ridesharing, however, has not made getting a lift easier overall, and even the Chinese are complaining now about the difficulty of hailing taxis. To make matters worse, last year, the police busted up a fake taxi ring in the expat hub of jinqiao, a fact that’s caused Colette some anxiety about getting over there to meet friends. And this year, officials have warned of more fake taxis at Shanghai’s Disneyland. Police have advised people not to get into taxis that look “old and dirty.” Seriously?

When you do actually manage to catch a cab, it’s no understatement to say that the drivers can be, uh, mercurial. More than once, images of Travis Bickle (God’s lonely man) have seeped through my mental filters like drops from a million Chinese air conditioners. You can never be one-hundred-percent confident if the ride is really swell, or if you’re about to be ejected at some not-quite-there destination. The general attitude of drivers appears to be one of annoyance, but without language in the mix, I’ll admit it’s easy to misinterpret. At least the majority of Taxi Driver’s most disturbing scenes (the ones I remember) took place outside the purview of Bickle’s car.

In Beijing last weekend, the one time I knew I could count on getting a taxi was from the Hyatt back to the train station. When I slid into the first taxi queued up in the roundabout, I momentarily basked in confidence as I showed the driver our train ticket declaring Beijing South Station as our destination. Then I got a peek at the driver’s countenance. He was not happy to deal with two laowai, and he did not appear, shall we say, inviting. I briefly considered hopping out of his cab and into one of the taxis further back in the queue, but too late; we were already moving.

Two days earlier, I’d had to hijack the English-speaking Chinese pal of a random Irish tourist we met wandering around outside the Forbidden City. (The English name the Chinese man asked me to use, ironically, was Ha Ha). My hired driver had been nearly impossible to interact with – he ignored my iPhone translations, ignored my requests (directions like, take us to our hotel), and communicated only in very literal grunts and frustrating snarls. He was apoplectic over our morphing plans: We’re walking over to Tiananmen Square, for example. As Ha Ha exchanged WeChat audio messages with the driver on my iPhone, the driver’s thunderous reply was so loud Ha Ha jerked the phone away from his ear. His eyes bugged out. “He’s mad at us, isn’t he?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, sort-of smiling.

Needless to say, this communication problem was weighing on me in the taxi. We got to the station just fine, but our 5-star hotel pick up didn’t protect us from the disdain of our driver. When he wouldn’t accept my WeChat pay (Beijing! What’s going on?), I had to search for cash. Cars behind us engaged in relentless Chinese honking (yes, it’s qualitatively different than American honking), which only made the driver more indignant. He berated us, coldly and loudly, grabbed our huge pile of crumpled fives with a general attitude of disgust, and drove off.

During our first year in China, Sophie and I experienced a funny episode taxi tyranny; at least we didn’t have to resort to carjacking. We tried to hail a cab to take us back to suburban Minhang from the Hongqiao Pearl Market. There was a taxi lane right in front of the market; you’d think it would be easy! Taxi One: looked at our destination card through his window and told us to drop dead. (Multiple available taxis drive by). Taxi Two: waved us away before we even got to the door. (Multiple available taxis drive by). Taxi Three: we boldly opened the door and sat in the backseat, assuming that in China possession is also nine-tenths of the law. Nope. He wasn’t about to drive us to the outer rings of hell in Minhang. Four truly is a lucky number in China! We finally made it home.

Colette tells a funny story about riding with a friend in a cab where the driver spent the entire ride imitating their speech and laughing at them. When the girls howled with laughter, he imitated them. When they spoke English words, he found it hilarious and imitated them. At one point he hit the brakes hard sending them flying forward, and they both let out an involuntary, “Whoop!” The driver began laughing hysterically, shouting, “Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!” as they continued on. Colette swears he kept hitting the brakes unexpectedly, just to make them yell again.

Another time, Colette and two friends (one of them Chinese speaking) hailed a taxi, and as the three teens gabbed amongst themselves in English in the backseat, he shouted at them. “Be Quiet! Shut up. Stop Talking!” A service industry mentality hasn’t really taken hold yet in China.

In the end, my complaining about taxis is purely tongue and cheek. Chinese disdain toward foreigners has become sort of endearing, actually. And these days I can use the metro or a driver to get most places. But I’ve decided the next time I’m in a Chinese taxi, and find myself arguing with a capricious driver, I’m just going to say to him, in the voice of Travis Bickle: “You talking to me?”

Taxi After An Evening Shower
By David Baker

This man saying no no. This man moaning jesus christ.
He’s got his forehead sealed to the fogged side window
in profile to the backseat and us. He’s broken.
His face, one shade from beautiful, wears the look
of weeping, though it’s dry—the front of the cab
glows blue, large as a cheap, cluttered room.
His friend is driving, broken down, black stone.

But there are lights in the walls of the numinous sky.
But there are people in overcoats dodging.
The rain has roughed up and polished the city—
blur of a blur of a blur. And so we are rushing
tight against the curb down the terminal streets
block after block, beneath stone walls and windows
and glitter. There is only one sadness, one speed.

POSTSCRIPT: About a month after I posted this, the humor group mamahuhu came out with this video about trying to get a Didi in Shanghai. Enjoy

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