Note: this is not one of those ‘make people laugh’ posts. But since the story happened quite a few weeks ago and somehow is still in my mind, I thought maybe it will be worth sharing. If you’re not in the mood for pseudo-deep meditations, feel free to skip it.
So there we are, T. and I. We’re standing on a corner, casually sipping beer (the only two bottles in the shop, straight from the freezer: T.’s drink is actually more like a bottle-shaped beer-flavoured ice-cube) and slowly making our way to the Joy Luck Club for the monthly disco party. It’s a bit of a walk so we’re considering taking a cab. It should be a piece of cake: there’s always plenty of cabs around, except for the rush hours, when they’re also there, but inevitably taken. Weirdly enough, this time all of them seem to be going in the opposite direction.
We’ve already walked a fair distance without any success, when a guy in a car stops by, winds the window down and yells: ‘Taxi?!’ It’s a private car, so we eye each other dubiously, but the guy gives us a good price and we get in.
I don’t expect much from the conversation. Always the same questions, the same answers, it gets boring. But somehow this time it veers to sports and T. is telling the guy how he’s going to do the Hangzhou half-marathon in a few weeks.
‘That’s nice’, says the cabbie. ‘I used to do a lot of running before. But now I have a child and we’ll need money for school. So I had to take up this additional job and I don’t have time for sports anymore.’
‘So you only work as a cab driver at weekends and nights? What do you do during the day?’
‘I have a regular office job. But it’s not enough.’
His child is nine, so it means quite a few years of crunching before he can relax. Plus, he says, he’d like to do an evening course at a university to get better qualifications.
As he talks, I think about my Dad, a one hundred percent self-made man, and how (before I was even born) he’d work illegally in Germany without seeing his family for months on end, just to give his kids a good start. Then I think about all the dads in China who do the same for their families.
The ride is a short one.
’15 yuan’, the cabbie repeats the price he gave us before. It’s cheaper than a normal cab. T. gives him a 20-yuan note and tells him to keep the change. He only accepts after we insist a few times, and then gives us his business card.
‘Call me if you ever need a car to go somewhere! But not if you’re very far from this area!’, he laughs heartily and drives off.
So this is the story I wanted to share with you today. No sarcasm, no irony, no jokes. A boring story of a normal guy who wants to do right by his family.
When you live in China, you sometimes feel like this culture and these people are completely inaccessible: the language (if you don’t speak and read it), the bad manners, the queue-jumping, the spitting, the staring-at-you, the trying-to-rip-you-off, the littering, the money-chasing, finally the blatant, callous and shocking disregard for anything or anyone who is not connected to you by bonds of blood or friendship (need I remind you the recent story of a 2-year-old that was hit by two successive cars and left on the street, without anyone helping her?). Yes, it’s true these behaviours, seemingly more common here then in some other countries, are unjustifiable even when you can see the reasons that brought them about. And it’s also true that sometimes, when you have nothing to hook your opinions to, it’s simply expedient to refer to generalisations and stereotypes as they at least offer you some starting point.
But the point is: sometimes when you scratch this soy-sauce-stained, dirty surface, when you go out of your way just a little bit, when you try to see a person and not just a Chinese, when you make them see you as a person and not just a laowai – you find exactly the same faults and virtues and stupidity and intelligence as anywhere else in the world. And in those moments you stop feeling like a stranger.
So dear Readers, you know as well as I do that if there’s anything readable in this blog, it’s the larger-than-life descriptions of Chinese realities. I’ve been criticising, complaining and whingeing about them these past two months – and of course I’ll keep it up. But I’ll also try to be a bit less prejudiced, a bit more open-minded and a bit readier to see the human element in the surrounding crowd.
Just in private. For your sake, I’ll keep the dirt flying.