Wednesday, October 13, 2004

I thought of that hoary cinematic Harry Chapin song on Saturday night after the Shenzhen taxi driver driving me and a Chinese companion in a circuitous route to a basic straight line destination decided to delay our arrival and jack up the fare further by stopping at the scene of a three vehicle accident. The other purpose was to gape (as far as many mainland Chinese are concerned, the nation's finest free entertainment is gawking at fender benders and the inevitable frenzied disputes that accompany them) and - as I learned after asking my Chinese pal - to shout his unsolicited "medical" opinion regarding a guy with a bleeding forehead. It seems our hack had once harbored ambitions to be a doctor, but was driving a cab instead. Taxi - for those who've forgotten all 6:44 of it or were simply unaware of it - is about a taxi driver whose dreams of being a pilot are ironically half-realized because he "flies so high" when he gets stoned driving his cab.
When we finally arrived the driver cum physician argued in Chinese with my companion about the fare. It's normally a 30 yuan ride, the meter, due to our delay and his "shortcut" read 43. We settled on 35. I gave him a 100 yuan bill, he tossed back a new 50, a weathered 10 and 5 and drove off.
The 50 turned out to be bogus, which I discovered while trying to buy drinks at our destination. I fumed but nodded politely as the waitress patiently pointed out that the paper was too thick, the swirl patterns on Mao's cheek were blurred and his mole was misplaced - details that had eluded me. I also fumed because I'd been duped twice in two days. Yes, it was the second funny 50 I'd received from a Shenzhen hack in 24 hours. In nearly 10 months of living and working in Shenzhen, I'd only had one counterfeit 100 and now the market was apparently flooded with phony yuan courtesy of cabbies whose license numbers I'd ignored and who would've vehemently denied passing bad bills even if I'd tracked them down.
Meanwhile, back in the former crown colony, Hong Kong takes professional cabbies who mostly speak a modicum of English, obey the meter and don't launder counterfeit money for granted. It is not a selling point, it is a fact of life.
Shenzhen doth protest too much: witness this breathless recent news dispatch from my former employer, the Shenzhen Daily:
''More than 300 volunteers shouted English at a conference hall in the China Hi-Tech Fair Exhibition Center on Saturday in an effort to cater for international visitors at the China Hi-Tech Fair. The volunteers and fair staff are not the only ones in the city honing English speaking skills. Taxi drivers, medical workers and sales people are also improving their English proficiency, expecting to provide international guests with satisfactory service.
"Taxi driver Chen Zhong was seen greeting a foreign passenger in fluent English outside Shenzhen Convention and Exhibition Center on Saturday. Chen said he could speak more than 200 English sentences and received massive English training before the fair.''

Taxi driver Chen Zhong rang a bell. Indeed, I remembered him from a story and photograph last year when he'd been featured - complete with white gloves, something you rarely see, even on Hong Kong drivers - also "speaking fluent English" with a foreign businessman in town for the high tech fair.
He's apparently the Potemkin village of Shenzhen cabbies, dressed up and trotted out for important expos to showcase the "satisfactory service" of the Shenzhen cab experience. I imagine him in a sort of Shenzhen Cabbie Cave, not unlike Batman’s Bat Cave or Superman’s Fortress of Solitude waiting for the call. Suddenly, a shortwave radio crackles or a beam of light resembling the silhouette of a Volkswagen Santana cab splashes across the dark Shenzhen skyline. Mr. Chen slips on the white gloves, turns the ignition key and he’s off while repeating, “Welcome to Shenzhen! Please sit down in my clean cab!’’ in faultless English.
Not that I haven't been at fault while trying to obtain such service. As my Mandarin skills are about as accomplished as those of a developmentally disabled tree sloth, I've resorted to having Chinese friends write various addresses on slips of paper, napkins, matchbooks and once on my arm for places I regularly frequent. I store them carefully in my wallet or shirt pocket where they can be pulled out and mutely shoved in front of the cabbie who usually scrutinizes it with the kind of expression that suggests he's seriously on the cusp of unlocking an unsolved equation involving particle physics and a recipe for Potage anglais de poisson à Lady Morgan -- an elaborate French soup that takes three days to create and also known as "The Hardest Soup in the World''.
He then repeats what sounds like the address back to me and I nod as if I understand and off we go with me often realizing that what he actually said was: "I have no idea where that address is, so is it okay if I just drive around aimlessly and chuckle while you throw yourself around in the back gesticulating like a mad man, screaming foreign obsenities?''
But sometimes the joke is on me. On the same doomed funny money excursion to Shenzhen, I began at the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border crossing called Guangdong by showing an address on a folded slip of paper to five different cabbies, all of whom made it clear before I could even open the car door that they had no clue as to where I wanted to go. All looked at the writing, shook their heads and shrugged apologetically as if to say, "What is written here is nonsense, the childish scrawlings of a mad man or a foreigner."
This was uncharacteristic because I'd previously had no problems with the same piece of paper and began to wonder if I'd run into five illiterate drivers.
Then I looked again at the paper and realized that the fold concealed the second half of the address and I'd been showing them only a portion of it.

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