My wife and I have been taking Mandarin lessons, out of simple necessity as well as part of our life-long pursuit of defying the Ugly American stereotype. After 10 sessions with an excellent teacher, I now speak enough Mandarin to make my life even more difficult. At the very beginning of learning a new language, one learns to say things and ask questions a bit before one can understand the replies. People misspeak when they say it’s important to be able to ask for directions in the native language. It’s far more important to be able to listen to the answer.
Fortunately, I have an unlikely ally in my pursuit of poly-glottal glory: taxi cab drivers. Ever since we first arrived here, our ever-changing array of chauffeurs have taken an interest in teaching me how to speak their language. I think it’s because I sit in the front seat, thereby opening up the possibility for conversation. My wife thinks its because my accent is better than most, and hearing that, they think I’m ready to learn. Either way, I’ll take it.
Our first taxi-tutor taught us to properly pronounce the names of the streets we live on. It was a short trip to Carrefour and he only had time for a few streets, but they were highly pertinent words. I would have tipped him, but I’ve been told that it only confuses the drivers.
Our next in-cab-instructor was a real wise guy. I sat down and said, “We’re going to Carrefour in Gubei.” He said, “No, no, not we. You’re going to Carrefour, I’m driving the cab.” He then asked me if we were going to eat on the bottom level, I said yes, and he said a few things I didn’t understand. Then he asked if my friend in the back was my girlfriend. I said she was my wife, so he proceeded to teach me the Shanghainese terms for wife and husband, so I could sound more proper.
Recently, I sat down in a cab with a 300k+ driver, who amazingly didn’t know where we lived. I told him that I knew the way and would tell him directions. So off we went, me issuing profundities like, “Left, right, straight ahead.” The most complex piece of language I offered was “Can we turn left on Hongqiao Road, here?” To which he replied, “We can.” Nonetheless, at the end of the trip, he asked me how long I had been in Shanghai. I said since August and my auto-assessor said it sounded like I had been here two years. My personal satisfaction was tempered with shame that four-year-old Chinese is considered such an accomplishment for foreigners.
Today, my didactic-driver decided to take it to the next level. As we pulled up at a long light, he reached for a newspaper. I was a little concerned, but then the professing-pilot put it in front of me. Pointing to the large headline, he proceeded to teach me the pronunciation and meaning of the first four characters. The lesson was delightful and appreciated, but so unexpected that I almost laughed out loud. We went on to a discussion of Aobama (Good!) Bush (Bad!) and how last week, I said I was from Australia, but this week I could say I was American. Despite the wide ranging discussion, he also asked how long I had been here, but before my ego could burst the cab doors off, he said my Chinese was "bu hao," or not good. He explained a little, which I couldn't understand, but clearly, I had been slacking off since the last guy.
I’m a little concerned that my next trip is going to include a quiz before I can leave the car and some homework before I'll be allowed to ride again. I guess it comes with being a full-time student here at Taxi U.
Monday, November 03, 2008
We’re all nigh on frantic about the economy, the election, the climate crisis, health care, and the war. I can’t imagine how bad it is in the perennial media-storm of the U.S., but I’m experiencing it all on top of life in a foreign country. Call us even. So to ease the mood, I’ll take a pass on the bloggings of deep profundity that had been tempting me and offer some merrier fare. In fact, I’ll share just how we are dealing with it all. My wife and I have devised little games, bits of amusement to help us enjoy the routine of our days, while also making a little lighter the elements of foreignness that constantly pull us down.
This was our first China sport, as you play it whenever you get in a cab. In every cab, the driver has to display his (though sporadically her) license, with picture and number. Often, the picture doesn’t match the driver, which we have decided not to worry about. The number is the real source of amusement. They range from 0 – 310,000, in order of when the cabbie received their license. To a degree, the lower the number, the more experienced the cabbie and the better service we receive. Cabbies over 300,000 rarely know the effective short-cuts or even try to understand my pathetic Mandarin. By contrast, those under 100k can often shave 10% off the usual price of a long trip and offer free language lessons during the ride. (more on that later) Yesterday, Mr. 97,000 made a rare wrong turn and gave me two yuan back at the end. I didn’t complain when he made his mistake, so I suspect the refund was purely a matter of pride, a self-punishment inflicted to keep him on his razor edge. For us, the challenge of the game is to find the lowest number possible. We are in constant pursuit of the Johnny Appleseed of Shanghai taxis, the legendary 000001. We firmly expect that he will pick us up one cold and rainy night when we are completely lost in some nether reach of the city, perhaps driving an all-white taxi that hovers on a small cloud. Currently, we’ve gone no lower than 3559, and as everyone in Shanghai knows, no cabbies ever pick you up in the rain.
This is a game with real stakes, begun by my wife and her stubbornness. I’m a reluctant participant through prayer and memorization of how to say “Hospital” in Mandarin. You see, the right of way is firmly established in China, more so than almost any other country I’ve been in. Mind you, however, that we walkers do not have it. Ever. Cars make left turns, right turns on red, and proceed through stop signs with nary a pause for pedestrians, completely assured that we pathetic folk of the foot should wait for them. Usually, my wife waits for no one. After weeks of frustration, she now forcefully puts out a hand when threatened by cars, palm out in the universal statement of, "You will stop for me." She is convinced that she is “bringing the Stop-Hand to China.” Generally it works well, occasionally my heart flutters, but so far the car always stops.
Angry or Mandarin
To our English-attuned ear, Mandarin is a very harsh sounding language. Shanghainese, I’ve been told, is even more strident. When we first arrived, we rushed to our balcony a half-dozen times expecting to see a fight on the corner. Generally, it was humdrum activities like a discussion between a parking lot attendant and driver. We understood nothing but the wave and “Goodbye!” at the end, but could surmise it hadn’t been an angry encounter after all. Now, when we hear raised voices below our apartment, around the corner, or at the table across the aisle, we wonder, “Angry or Mandarin?” Before searching for context clues: smiles, good-bye hugs, or thrown napkins, we have to make an initial guess. Even with ten weeks of practice, we’re still wrong with surprising frequency.
Major League Bike-Hauling
This is a China classic. The working class here, denied by their nine-day work week any participation in such leisure activities as kite-flying, card-playing, or tai chi, have designed their own national pastime-in-working: Extreme Bikecart Hauling. At first, my heart sank with sympathy for the poor souls carrying mountains of recyclables, hardware, or the oddly shaped thing, across the city on a bike-cart. The more I studied them and their rate of speed, however, the more I realized that the towering piles could not possibly be the best way to transport goods by bike-cart. Any logic of economics or efficiency would suggest two trips. Instead, I now firmly believe that carrying the most incredible load is a badge of pride, the insertion of some small piece of status into an arduous and awful job. The bike hauler may never own an apartment or car, leave Shanghai or use a computer, but he can, at the very least, carry the largest pile of wood ever fit on a bike-cart. Who am I to deny him his moment of excellence? Appreciation, rather than heartache, seems the more appropriate display of respect. Having decided it’s okay to enjoy, I’m an avid bike-hauling fan. Each dimension offers its own challenge. We once saw someone biking down the street with ten feet of bamboo extending from either end of the cart. A trip to the ever reconstructing old-town featured a man who had given up bicycling and was simply pushing his twenty cubic foot load of bricks. Water-bottle haulers have to compete in their own division, due to the eccentricity of their shape. (Only rookies use wire cages or, worse yet, stack a simply pyramid.) The overall volume champion is pictured above. When he appeared in my peripheral vision, I almost didn’t look, mistaking the shape for a semi-truck.