By Jane Hanson
Each time a Beijing taxi pulls over when I wave it down, I wonder whether I will learn something new from the driver.
I have done research sitting in both the front passenger seat and the back seat as to which position invites more conversation. I believe that sitting in the front seat tends to make the trip a shared event, joining our karma as the driver and I brave the harrowing trips through Beijing streets.
I have seen accidents. Some were merely fender benders, while others made me thankful for my driver's superior skills. All of them underscored the alertness required to successfully navigate Beijing traffic.
I have encountered mostly male drivers, but the occasional female have been efficient and friendly. I also have no information to indicate whether my own gender is an advantage or a handicap, but universally, if I speak first, and attempt to use Chinese, the driver is more likely to make conversation.
One of the most difficult things to do in Beijing if you are a foreigner is to practice Chinese. Opportunities for interaction with Chinese people in other public transportation, such as in the subway, invariably gravitate rapidly toward English practice.
However, taxi drivers are dependent on you being able to speak Chinese sufficiently well that you can tell them where you need to go. A taxi driver will invest time in assisting you to clearly identify your destination in passable Chinese, and I have earned many a chuckle by thanking my driver for being my Chinese teacher.
I have even been coached in the finer points of the Beijing accent and the necessity of adding an "r" sound to words ending in "n". All taxi drivers appear to know the name of tourist destinations in both English and Chinese, so you can always resort to tourism as a topic of conversation that can be resuscitated easily. More than one driver is actually a tour guide masquerading as a taxi driver.
I have also enjoyed talking with drivers who happen to be weather experts, sports fans, political conservatives, and even one potential liberal!
Many are experts in musical genres of both American and Chinese music. One curious driver wanted to know all about SUVs and whether I owned one. Another asked about my country and whether it was true that each member in a family has their own car. All were glad to talk about the Olympics and the good that they hope it brings for China.
The English classes the government provided in order to help taxi drivers assist foreigners attending the Olympics gave these drivers more confidence in talking to foreign visitors.
Most love to have the opportunity to use basic English, working up the courage to throw out a new word or two as you're leaving the taxi.
One exception was a taxi driver who greeted me in English and offered me a card printed in both Chinese and English. He explained that he has completed all 12 levels of an audio tutorial program for learning English while driving his taxi!
Whether shooting off to Wudaokou, or moving through the crowds near Dashila and Liulichang, each Beijing taxi ride offers possibilities and new perspectives.
(China Daily September 2, 2008)