Saturday, September 05, 2015

Ode to a Chinese Taxi Driver


Today, like many days, I took a taxi. My driver was special in ways that only one who has lived in China awhile can appreciate. He had a mole on his cheek, out of which sprouted several long hairs, which he sported with pride. Stay hairs are auspicious to Chinese men (I know, Ming will never let me pluck one of his). I think my driver had food stuck in his teeth while also suffering from a head cold. He alternated between making odd sucking noises and hacking out the window. It made me realize that in my list of Things I'll Miss about China, I had left something out. I forgot to mention my adoration for China's taxis and their drivers. 

Beijing taxis, photo via lc.cf8.com.cn
When asked if taxis are safe in China, I answer “yes” without a second's hesitation. Of course, there are times to be weary of them, especially if you know nothing of the country or the language. There are certainly unscrupulous drivers out there, who hatch schemes in hopes of earning a few extra renminbi. In the event that you become a victim of such a plot, try not to panic. It may seem though your driver is taking you out into the middle of nowhere to leave you for dead, but he is, in all likelihood, just taking the scenic route home in an attempt to run-up the meter.

In ten years, I have probably taken hundreds of Chinese taxis, licensed and (occasionally) unlicensed, both alone and with others. The one time I got taken advantage of, I was with my husband. Once we called the driver out on his shenanigans, he quickly became apologetic and lowered the fare. Though at times on alert for being overcharged, I've never felt threatened by a driver. In fact, taking a taxi—if you can catch one—is usually a pleasant experience. The drivers are generally jovial and curious, the perfect traits for those who want to practice their Chinese. I've found that you can learn a lot from local cabbies, depending on how you'd like to expand your Chinese vocabulary. I've learned how to curse out every Zhou (Joe) from here to Shanghai simply by spending a few rides stuck in Beijing's rush hour traffic. My salute to you, Beijing cabbies, for teaching me words that would make even your weird, perverted uncle blush.

In additional to being a learning experience, taking a taxi is very economical, at least by western standards. In Chengde, a typical ride costs between 6-10 RMB (US$1-1.50). In the US, you'd probably have to tip a driver more than that. You don't have to tip Chinese drivers, though sometimes you may have to bribe them to pick you up. Would you expect anything less in the Middle Kingdom? In Chengde, there is an ample fleet of cabs, so passengers still hold the upper hand. The situation in Beijing, however, is problematic for potential passengers. Due to lack of taxis, tech-savvy Beijingers have turned to apps such as Didi Dache to help them grab a cab. Use your smart phone to alert all taxis on the network where you need a pick-up—sounds convenient right? No more standing on the side of the road desperately waving your hand at every approaching car, squinting to see if the vehicle is a taxi and if so, if the stupid “unoccupied” light is on. Sure, you can avoid that indignity. But there's there's a price to pay for that luxury. If you are in serious need of a ride, you better be willing to add cash (call it a tip, but it's really a bribe) to the fare. You can start by adding 10 RMB ($1.50) and try your luck. If it's rush hour, plan on adding 20 RMB or more. My friend told me that many Beijing taxi drivers have conspired to avoid 5-star hotels unless the passenger offers 50 RMB on top of the fare. Those sneaky little buggers. But even with a pick-up bribe, Beijing taxis are affordable compared to the US. On a recent journey, I spent 56 RMB on a 30 minute ride (36 RMB fare + 20 RMB bribe) during Beijing rush hour. That's less than US$10.

So yes, I will miss the built-in language tutor plus the convenience that comes with taking a cab in China. But as my husband reminded me, in the US I'll have my own car. I suppose that will be pretty nice, too.

What type of transportation do you typically use where you live? Do you rely on other types of transportation when on vacation or while abroad?

9 comments:

martalivesinchina said...

Beijing cabbies are indeed very chatty! The ones in Suzhou and Shanghai hardly talk to me... Anyway, I don't take cabs so much now as in Shanghai the subway is very convenient and in Suzhou my bf has a car.

Last time I went to Beijing I noticed it was very hard to take a cab, the drivers were parked with their feet on the wheel and wouldn't even move for less than 100 RMB!!

Anonymous said...

I take the subway, bus and drive in NYC. Rarely take a taxi. Manhattan taxi drivers have a bad rep (accidents, lane violations, not signaling when turning, etc).

Autumn said...

Pretty funny. Cab drivers in LA are very quiet. Very disappointing. Think of all the curse words I could have learned.

rosieinbj said...

@Marta, I think it's interesting that there is a very different "cab culture" from city to city in China. I don't use a smart phone (I know, I know) so it is near impossible for me to get a taxi in Beijing. Last time I had to receive help from the hotel worker where my friends were staying.

@Anonymous, Chinese cab drivers are also guilty of such violations, but that's pretty much every driver in the country. I'm definitely not comfortable driving here because of it!

@Autumn, and perhaps in a variety of languages as well.

martalivesinchina said...

You don't have a smartphone? I partly envy you, but on the other hand... no wechat? no top up phone credit with one tap? no dididache? no scanning a code and paying directly with alipay?

rosieinbj said...

Hi Marta, I do use wechat on my ipad. I top up my phone at a kiosk near my flat and use taobao on my computer and that's the only time I use alipay--I didn't even know you could scan and pay with it. I haven't seen that done here (we are behind the times here in Hebei). Taxis don't seem to use dididache in Chengde. I don't really mind the inconvenience as I like that my phone is never a distraction. When I return to the US, I'll probably get a smartphone though.

martalivesinchina said...

Haha, smartphones have quite a lot of useful applications! But I agree, I waste a lot of time...

Betty has a Panda said...

I usually use public transports here in Vienna as taxis are quite expensive. Sometimes I use one when I stay out late with friends, at it is impossible for me to get home fast in the middle of the night.

In Hong Kong I love that taxis are so cheap. We often take one home in the evening when I am tired after a long day. Sometimes it costs as much as public transport fee for us too, so of course we'll take a taxi.
Sometimes the drivers are quite strange, one once cleaned his teeth with a tooth pic the whole drive... One once fell asleep when we stopped at red traffic lights for a moment.. I wasn't too happy about this driver though. D:

rosieinbj said...

@Betty, I think those driver behaviors would be considered quite normal in mainland China!