NB- I didn’t have a picture to illustrate this, so used one of me looking sad by some fancy gates.
There is a rite of passage for any outsider striving to build a life in Shanghai. It might seem mean to somebody who hasn’t experienced it, but everybody involved is in on the game and no feelings get hurt, so please don’t worry. It’s merely a test of language, a release of frustrations, and everybody’s better for it.
I first heard about this at the start of our time in Shanghai, at the end of August. I had spent the afternoon registering at university, and had arranged to meet Ro and his colleague, who lives really close to my campus, for dinner. It was a rainy day, relentlessly so, and I had no money in my wallet, no internet on my phone, and no idea what to do with myself. But that is not the story.
Ro and his colleague were late, blighted by a taxi driver who had chosen a traffic-jammed route. Realising that they would have to abandon ship and go to catch a metro, Ro’s colleague had given the driver a piece of her mind, and he had returned the courtesy. They told me this over dinner. One week into living in Shanghai, this boggled my mind; how could anyone ever be proficient, and confident, enough to have a go at a taxi driver? Ro’s colleague’s secret was that she didn’t really have any idea what she was saying. As part of the exchange that would leave to them abandoning the journey, angry words had to be exchanged. It didn’t even really matter what they were.
The second time I heard of this was from another of Ro’s colleagues; an especially sweet natured American who wouldn’t shout at her own executioner. We were on our way to see Beauty and the Beast (obviously) but our nearest cinema had cancelled the showing we were aiming for (so China), so we decided to go to a different cinema with a showing half an hour later. Some of us walked; others took a taxi.
It emerged that their taxi driver had just pretended to know where he was going and driven them to he wrong place. So Roland’s colleagues had let fly. She told me that all she basically shouted at him was ‘weishenme? weishenme?’, which means ‘why?’ and adds a pleasingly melodramatic, ‘wronged Italian Nonna’ air to proceedings. He shouted back, she shouted some more, and then he drove her to the right place just in time for Belle. Everybody’s happy.
My own time to shine came shortly later when we were being visited by Ro’s sister and her friend Nisha. I just want to preface this by saying that hailing a cab in Shanghai at the moment is an utter nightmare. They all drive around with their green lights on (green=available) but just never stop. It’s absolutely maddening.
So, this was happening to us on a Friday night, which is hard enough to get a cab on anyway. Nobody would stop; we were losing hope; the situation couldn’t have been worse. We came upon the intersection of two streets in the French Concession that I like to call expat corner, and there was an available taxi just sitting there. Available taxis never just sit anywhere. We sprinted to it and got in; he drove off.
After about 10 minutes in the taxi, I realised he was going the wrong way. There’s a really obvious route from the centre of town to our house, or there’s a bullshit roundabout route that taxi drivers who want to fleece us take. He was doing the latter. We’d missed any opportunity to make him go the right way though, so I thought I’d just take down his license number and report him, because I’m spiteful.
This was when I realised why he was just sitting on expat corner with no customers: he didn’t have a license. Now obviously this is not ideal, but with four of us in the taxi I didn’t sense that we were in any particular danger; he was just a chancer trying to cheat money out of tourists.
I quietly alerted everyone to this situation, and told Ro’s sister to get out of the taxi as soon as it stopped and take pictures of his number plate. When he finally pulled in to our compound the bill was 150RMB, when normally it would have been about 60RMB. Now was my time to seize the moment.
Me: Why you go to north side! Very far! Very far!
Him: The tunnel was closed!
Me: No. Why not go bridge?
Him: The bridge was closed!
Me: No no no no no no (repetition is big in Chinese arguing). No was both closed.
Him: [Chinese shouting]
Me: You are not good! I am very not happy! This is too expensive!
Him: much gesturing Every route was closed
Me: My friend take photograph your car. Very not good!
Him: [Chinese shouting]
Me: I give you 100 RMB
Him: gestures to indicate ‘whatever, get out of my cab’
So you see, I managed to practice my Chinese at high volume (and sound a bit like Donald Trump in translation?), which made me feel good, and he still got more money than he would have for the ride. I defended our rights, and he got to shout at a customer (everyone’s dream who works in any kind of service).
The only person who didn’t win in this situation was Ro’s sister, who later had to spend time deleting the hundreds of blurred photographs of a taxi from her phone.