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Welcome To Take Beijing Taxi

A little knowledge is very dangerous, and that’s true of the person who knows about as much Mandarin as the average Chinese four year old. People talk to you. In Chinese. Even if you only know how to say the address of your hotel or apartment properly, taxi drivers, like taxi drivers the world over, will talk to you. Some of them talk about the building work in Beijing, others practice their English, but mostly they yammer on to me in Chinese about everything and nothing. All I’m able to do is offer an appreciative “yes” or “ahhhh”, and hope that it looks like I understand and sympathize.

Because of my horrendously low level of Chinese, most interactions with taxi drivers are short and to the point. I know how to direct someone to my apartment (go straight ahead a little…you see the little road on the left? Ok straight ahead, left here and stop), and I’m particularly good at the old mobile-phone-with-handy-Chinese-directions-on-it trick, but that’s about it. I know nothing of their lives, they’re probably largely more interested in my life as most Chinese people are, and I’d like to know about them, but we’re separated by the huge, bulletproof, reinforced concrete barrier of my own ineptitude, my ignorance and disrespect of Chinese culture.

Sometimes I have a great taxi driver, like the guy a few weeks ago. He seemed, as they often do, rather happy to have a foreigner in the back. Once we’d established that my Chinese was pretty much worthless, and that my girlfriend could speak both Mandarin and English, we quickly fell into the routine of my girlfriend explaining something in Chinese, and then the taxi driver checking his pronunciation on me.

According to the Beijing Olympic website, nearly 90,000 drivers are learning English, and will be able to “chat with foreigners about the NBA star Yao Ming, or Beijing snack[s]”. If the drivers struggle, then there’s still no need worry, as taxi companies are installing computerized translators in their cars. The website doesn’t elaborate what’s going to happen if you know nothing of the NBA (like your average British person, who, is, admittedly, more likely to shout directions twice at the poor man, before smashing the car up). Xinhua news releases me always make me nervous, for some reason – especially the use if the word “chat” in the sentence above.

There are two things that foreigners talk a lot about in Beijing. The first thing is mostly about public toilets, ex-pats and tourists alike swap stories about them like war veterans. The second is usually the smell inside a Beijing taxi, largely the smell of a mouth that has been washed with green tea for most of the day, lightly peppered with the smell of aged garlic. The smell problem has caught the attention of the Olympic mandarins and they assure me that only the most fragrant taxis will be available for sports fans this summer – they will conduct extensive smell tests to make sure quality is maintained.

Getting into a taxi, and, a few hours later, when you’ve had a couple of stiff drinks and have worked up the courage to actually take a ride in one to your destination is a watershed for both the tourist and foreign worker. As mentioned, even though the taxis are the lifeblood of the city, not many of the drivers can speak English. They’re being forced to do it for the Olympics, but given their attitude of picking and choosing who to pick up and where to go, I wouldn’t be too optimistic about them all getting their heads down to study after a 12 hour shift ferrying drunken foreigners to and from Sanlitun.

Under normal circumstances – that is, if I didn’t live in Beijing – I would say that the taxi driver has to put up with a lot of grief. Having been booted out of innumerable taxes simply because the driver doesn’t want to go where I want to go – I assume it’s something along the Chinese version of “I’m not going south of the river this time of time of night, you’ll stink up the cab with your kebabs” – I’m going to say that they don’t have that much of a hard life outside of working on national holidays.

Beijing is a crowd surfing city, built on a shifting sand of people. You meet people in Beijing, and then pretty soon, they leave. The Chinese guys usually go back to their families, taking two day train journeys back home. The foreigners soon ache for something different, somewhere where you can breathe air you can’t see, a green field, a flower or two that isn’t choking on car fumes. Maybe the attraction of English-speaking Hong Kong draws them south, or cooler climes of the north take them to some one-horse village in Gansu. China owes it’s economic success to the migrant worker, and it’s the migrant workers that make up the bulk of Beijing’s taxi driver community.

Weather they liked it or not (and it’s more than likely not), Beijing taxi drivers were the front line of the city’s personality drive for the Olympics. The hardened, dour-mouthed resident would argue that trying to give a city like Beijing a personality is akin to bolting the stable door after the horse has bolted, failed to run, been shot and turned into the contents of a glue pot, but still, you have to give points for effort. Taxi driver might need lessons in hygiene, customer service and basic Beijing geography; they were the first and last people that Olympic visitors were likely to see.

One such driver, a former pig-dung shoveler, laborer and electrician (the connection between the three isn’t very clear) isn’t optimistic about his prospects, “My monthly income was about 3,000 yuan (£195) two years ago. Now it is 2,000 yuan (£130).” he told a Guardian reporter, “I expect it will go even lower in the future,” he says. “I don’t get any days off. I want to cry.” So says Xia Shishan, Beijing taxi driver of four and a half years. He has to support a daughter at university, and a sick mother.

Compared to his own youth, when he only had flour, sweet potatoes and tea leaves to eat, things are now undoubtedly much better. Shishan and his family eat meat on a regular basis, compared to the times when meat was confined to special events like Spring Festival, but still there is the worry. His worries are not those politics, or social stability, banned movies or songs, or imprisoned journalists. He is more concerned about supporting his family, while surviving on one of the lowest rungs of Beijing society. Already the Olympics have affected him personally – “Developers are going to knock down my mum’s home. It’s part of the project for South Beijing railway station. They offered compensation, but it is only enough to buy a bathroom. We can appeal for more, but ordinary citizens don’t have much power.”

The Olympics fired the imagination of everyone in the capital. Xia Shishan reckons that “China is an ancient nation with 5,000 years of history. Thanks to the Olympics, we can show how great our country is. We will finish top of the medal table. There is no doubt about it. And when we win, I will be so excited my blood will boil.”

Of course, not all the taxi drivers are this nice. In 2004, Li Pingping was executed for murdering prostitutes in Beijing, he killed three of them from November 2002 to April 2003 – he also managed to stab his ex-employer, his wife and their 12-year-old daughter to death. He killed the hookers because he believed they made money more easily that he did, and his wife was sent to the slammer for fifteen years for helping him.

When you do a little research on the Beijing cabbie, you tend to see why Pingping blew his stack. As well as having to cope with ever-changing rules and traffic regulations, the ever-increasing price of petrol, and the fact that the drivers have to pay their management companies anything from 2000RMB to 6000RMB while they earn a maximum of about 2000RMB – which doesn’t leave a whole lot of cash to live on. Add to that a compulsory English test for the 2008 Olympics, and the fact that there are obligatory price hikes, you get a much clearer picture of what’s going on. It becomes more and more unfathomable as to why I routinely get told that a destination is too far, or is in the wrong direction, or perhaps the drivers have accepted the inevitable, and have just given up on trying to offer some kind of recognizable customer service. When you consider that the Beijing taxi will be the front line of the welcoming committee for the Games, then everything becomes even more unfathomable – the city authorities should be doing things to keep them happy, rather than poking them with a pointy stick. Repeatedly. For no good reason.

Everything came to a head two years ago, when the driver arranged a mass “go slow day” in Beijing, throwing the city into mild chaos. While it fell short of an out-and-out strike, the message was pretty clear – the drivers were not happy. Foreigners and Chinese alike were forced to stand…waiting (people do not like to wait for much here in Beijing) for a driver to take them somewhere and they did take them. Very, very slowly they took them.

Ok, so no one forces them at gunpoint to become taxi drivers, but when these people have very little else in the way of employment options for them, you can hardly blame them, and they do get a bum deal. Most of them sign on for four or five year contracts, and get paid less that Ghandi’s personal assistant.

What is lacking is a clear, thought-out strategy. The Olympic Games are a great source of national pride, and if there are few smiling faces to ferry around the fresh-faced tourists, then it will largely be the fault of a government that, while it wants to be accepted, is more preoccupied in taxing heavily, and dreaming up kooky new laws that serve only to confuse and bamboozle the average Beijinger. Instead of reveling in their red tape paradise, perhaps the powers that be should focus on giving the workers reasons to be cheerful beyond the pipe dream of a harmonious society.

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