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Classics and a beer and the best cabbie ever

I’ve been trying to clear my plate of all of my freelance gigs and other obligations as I prepare to take on a new job next month, so over the past couple of weeks I’ve pulled more than a few all-nighters on things. All-nighters tend to be easy for me; in part because my body’s circadian rhythms seem to default to vampire mode, but also because I’ve got a few 24-hour restaurants in my neighborhood where I can go for sustenance when necessary.

Picking the right restaurant can be a tricky affair. Northeastern-style places serve large portions, so they’re not a great bet if you’re eating alone. There’s a great Northwestern-style Shaanxi noodle place about 20 minutes’ walk from my apartment, but I’ve been eating too much of their 油泼扯面 rough-cut noodles drizzled in chili oil lately, and their hours are unpredictable anyway. A 煎饼 Beijing-style omelet would be an option, but the vendors usually aren’t out on the street before 6 or 7, and I start jonesing for food around 3, and the 24-hour dimsum joint at Yonghegong is just a bit too far out of the way for me to go there in the middle of an all-nighter. 簋街 Gui Jie, the street lined with 24-hour Sichuan places, is just ten minutes away on foot, but previous experience has taught me that it isn’t the best of ideas to go for Sichuan food when you’re trying to stay awake: the huajiao insanity peppers will snap you awake, all right, but then you’ll need a beer to cool down, resulting in no net gain – and perhaps even a net loss – in wakefulness. Fortunately there’s a cheap ‘n’ cheerful 24-hour 锅贴 potsticker joint right around the corner from me. Potstickers make great all-nighter fuel: two large plates of beef and jalapeno potstickers and a bottle of green tea will set you back about 25 kuai and leave you with enough left-overs to take home for breakfast.

So I’ve been going there a lot. I was there a couple of nights ago after deciding that it was time, really time, to take a break from the sample chapter I was doing of a fairly dire Chinese horror novel. It was about 1:30 in the morning – earlier than my wonted hour – and there were still plenty of people in there: a couple of regulars at the back of the place, two middle-aged guys who had just gotten off the late shift at work, and a couple of young toughs and their slattern girlfriends.
I ordered and sat down, half reading the copy of A Canticle for Leibowitz that I’d brought in my pocket, half eavesdropping on the people sitting around me, in case anybody was saying anything interesting. No such luck: the two guys sitting next to me who’d just gotten off work were talking job politics, and though they had apparently not been planning on getting drunk – as evinced by their choice to drink beer rather than baijiu – the two of them were fairly stocious, slurring and red-faced. “Y’ can’ jus’ go an’ tell’m,” one said to the other. “‘S, ‘s jus’ gonn’ getcha in trouble. You don’ wann’ sinkta his level, ‘m I righ’?”
Behind them, the would-be gangbangers were doing the usual loud posturing in self-consciously low-class accents. I don’t remember much about their conversation other than the preponderance of the words “fuckin'” and “stupid cunt.”
At the back, the regulars sat there silently, eating or watching the period drama playing on the TV behind the counter.

Since there didn’t seem to be anything interesting going on, I turned to my book. A few minutes later, the drunken guys next to me — I’d guessed that they were cabbies, though the shift time didn’t really match up — got up and put on their coats. One of them walked to the back of the place to pick up the check; the other one stood next to my table for a moment before asking, very politely, “Do you speak Chinese?”
“A bit,” I said.
“What are you reading? Is it the Bible?”

For a moment, I panicked, thinking that he might have recently found Jesus. I’ve had a few conversations with recent converts about their newly found faith – I guess since everyone knows that foreigners are religious – and have always found it difficult to pretend that I believe their conversion to be a good thing.
“No,” I said. “It’s a science-fiction novel.”
“Oh.”
(awkward pause)
“So,” he asked, in a hello-I-will-be-your-cheerful-drunk- for-the-evening voice, “you ever hear of Confucius?”
“Um. Sure.”
“Confucius was a sage. He was a great sage.”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
“He had six books– I readd’m all.”
“Really.”
“The, the Book of Odes, the Book of Changes, the Book of Spring and Autumn, the Book of Rites, the Book of Records, and the Book of Music. But then the Book of Music was lost. But I read the other five.”

He beamed at me, and I decided that smiling and nodding would be better than pointing out that no serious modern textual scholar would attribute authorship of those books to Confucius.

“If you really wann’ unnerstan’ China, you gotta read Confucius,” he added.
“That’s very true,” I said.
“He had six books, you know.”
“Um.”
“Six, not five. But one uvvem got lost. Are you reading the Bible?”

At this point, his friend came in and charitably dragged him out by the elbow. As he stumbled out the door, he turned back to me: “I wish you th’ verr’ best luck in China,” he said. “Remember — read Confucius!”


Oddly enough, people hardly ever start conversations with me on the topic of classical literature. More often it’s the standard litany that any foreigner who’s been in these parts for more than five minutes will know by heart. How long have you been here. Oh, your Chinese is very good. Where are you from. Are you used to Chinese food.
One of the things that I always really liked about Beijing is that for the most part, people here are not all that impressed by Chinese-speaking foreigners, reasoning quite rightly that anyone can speak Chinese. You’ll get the obligatory “oh, your Chinese is very good” thing, sure — but then from there you can usually have a real conversation.

This used to be particularly true of your average cab driver, that tireless ferrier of the middle classes, profanity tutor for wide-eyed foreign students, and friend to lazy journalists everywhere, but recent relaxations on hukou ID policy have meant that while cabbies used to have to come from Beijing proper — which is to say that they were practically guaranteed to have leaden feet, fast mouths, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the city — they now only have to come from Beijing municipality, meaning that residents of Miyun, Pinggu, and Yanqing can work in town too. The net result is that a majority of cabbies these days are scared country kids who drive slowly, never talk, and live in constant fear of police harassment, to the point where they will actually wear their seat belts to avoid a fine.

The full extent of the damage became clear to me last summer, when Beijing vice-mayor 刘志华 Liu Zhihua got his ass thrown out of power for, quote, ”生活腐化堕落,” i.e, “leading a corrupt and dissolute lifestyle.” The domestic newspapers gave no further detail, which meant that you knew there was going to be a good story behind it, and sure enough, Hong Kong media elaborated somewhat on the reasons behind the official Party judgement: Liu had been keeping a massive villa out in the suburbs of Beijing stocked with nubile young girls, and frequently spent his weekends there, ripped to the tits on Viagra and amphetamines and having himself a rare old time.

Now, I usually walk or take the train home from my office, but this was such an awesome piece of news that I decided to take a cab, just to see what the grapevine take on the matter was. I flagged a guy down, sounded him out — he had no obvious rural accent, so I figured he’d be in on the story — and I said, cleverly, “So — didja hear about Liu Zhihua?”
“No.”
“You know — vice-mayor? He just got kicked out for having, what did they call it in the Hong Kong press, a ‘pleasure palace.’ Girls, drugs, the works.”
“Oh.”
“…You hadn’t heard?”
The cabbie kept his eyes straight ahead on the road, his face immobile. “We ordinary people don’t need to know about that kind of thing,” he said piously. “As long as the government gives us some good laws to follow, that’s enough for us.”
Oh.”


Back in 2005, before I moved to my current wonderful neighborhood, I lived out near Guomao, the miserable, soulless “business district” of Beijing. For reasons I’m still unable to reconstruct, I’d rented a large, expensive apartment in a new development surrounded by building sites on all four sides, meaning that the apartment was assaulted by dust, noise, and flashes from welding torches 24/7. It was connected to the outside world (or at least the East Third Ring Road) by a long road that took a good twenty minutes to walk, and was flanked on either side by high-rises in varying degrees of construction.

Taxis and mototrikes used to congregate at the entrance to the development. I took mototrikes — cardboard-walled little deathtraps mounted on motorized scooters – to the subway most mornings, and would either walk or cab otherwise. One evening, not long after I moved into the area, I needed to get out to Wudaokou to meet my friend Joel, so I hopped in one of the cabs. The standard protocol followed: I said where I wanted to go, and then he complimented me on my Chinese and asked where I was from, and I said I was from the States. He said that the US was a good place to be from, and I gave my standard answer about how disappointed the country had made me over the last couple of years.

“Oh,” he said. “An idealist.”
Wham
! Massive breach of protocol!

“Sure,” he continued, “your government sucks. But you can at least get rid of them in 2008. At least somebody somewhere wanted them — though I guess that’s disappointing for you too. But look around you here — ” he gestured to the skyscrapers and highrises of Beijing’s Central Business District as they flashed by us.
“This stuff? It’s all crap. The real buildings, the real money, all goes to Shanghai. And why? Because of that cuntrag Jiang Zemin! Every time I see that frog-faced motherfucker I just want to punch the wall! All he knows is how to make rich people richer, and none of us ever sees a goddamn cent of it. You ever study classical Chinese?”

A little, I said, but nothing much more complicated than the Zhuangzi.

“Zhuangzi’s good all right, but he’s a romantic. If you’re interested in politics, you’ve got to read Guanzi. It’s still true today –” and then he started quoting the 4th century BCE Legalist text Guanzi at me:

凡治國之道,必先富民。民富則易治也,民貧則難治也。奚以知其然也? 民富則安鄉重家,安鄉重家則敬上畏罪,敬上畏罪則易治也。民貧則危鄉輕家,危鄉輕家 則敢凌上犯禁,凌上犯禁則難治也。故治國常富,而亂國常貧。是以善為國者,必先富民,然後治之。

In the governing of a kingdom, one must first enrich the people. The people, being enriched, will thus be easy to govern. Being poor, they will be difficult to govern. Wherefore should this be so? When people are well-off, they will be secure in their villages and devoted to their homes. When they are secure in their villages and devoted to their homes, they will respect their superiors and fear transgression. Being respectful of their superiors and fearful of transgression, they will thus be easy to govern. When people are poor, they will be insecure in their villages and unmindful of their homes. Being insecure in their villages and unmindful of their homes, they will dare to defy their rulers and flout the law. Daring to defy their rulers and flout the law, they will thus be difficult to govern. So it is that a governed kingdom is constantly wealthy, while a chaotic kingdom is constantly poor. Therefore, those who are good at governing first enrich the people, and then govern them.

“Um,” I said.

We chatted more, and as we got towards Wudaokou he asked one of the other litany questions.
“Philadelphia,” I said as I got out of the cab.
“Philadelphia!” he said. “Ben Franklin! Now there was a man!”

And he sped off into the night.

23 Comments

  1. Fantastic post man. Inspiration for all us would-be-speakers of Chinese to get our asses in gear and break out of the boring standard conversations.

    Cheers.

    Friday, March 30, 2007 at 8:41 am | Permalink
  2. Gotta love cabbies.

    Friday, March 30, 2007 at 10:52 am | Permalink
  3. yz wrote:

    呵呵,有点大隐隐于市的味道,frog-faced motherfuckor, becareful not to put this into Chinese, or you may be in trouble, 切记,切记~

    Friday, March 30, 2007 at 6:40 pm | Permalink
  4. Kevin S. wrote:

    I wish I wasn’t so cheap, wait, actually I really wish that I just made more money. I almost always take the bus.

    Friday, March 30, 2007 at 7:03 pm | Permalink
  5. Prince Roy wrote:

    Nice story and it brings up something that’s always befuddled me. What in god’s name is it about Chinese learners and cabbies?

    I can’t be in a room more than five minutes with a westerner who has studied Chinese before I’m hearing some China cabbie anecdote.

    Is this a phenomenon exclusive to China studies? I haven’t really formally studied any other languages since high school: do those students talk about their cab experiences as well?

    And it’s something that affects both sides of the Straits. Hard-core Formosa-philes love their cabbie stories too.

    Sunday, April 1, 2007 at 10:35 am | Permalink
  6. Matt wrote:

    Wow, did he actually quote that extensively.. or did he go on further? Pretty interesting that it was on the tip of his tongue…

    BTW, I enjoyed the brief daylight awarded to Wen Jiabao’s budding career in Hollywood. I am surprised that this information wasn’t released on his facebook.com page. And on what ground has evidence of the plan disappeared from the internets?

    Monday, April 2, 2007 at 12:48 am | Permalink
  7. Prince Roy — I can only assume it’s because of two factors:

    (1) Cabbies are regular people.

    Or so is the supposition. It’s hard, in most people’s experience, to have conversations with regular people, particularly because regular people, in most situations, have already got conversation partners. Being in a cab alone pretty much forces you into a one-on-one with someone who — in previous years at least — would be just dying to talk.

    (2) In the case of journalists, and I speak from the position of a lowly researcher, you’re looking for a source, and most people don’t feel like talking to you, at least in any attributable context.

    Matt — It’s been almost two years, so I can’t be sure, but he definitely had the first half on the tip of his tongue, at the very least.

    And I decided that the Wen Jiabao thing wasn’t as funny as I’d initially thought. Give me a bit, and — if I think it’s still funny tomorrow – I’ll put it up in Flash or Animated GIF form. As is, I did it at work without Photoshop access.

    Monday, April 2, 2007 at 2:34 am | Permalink
  8. Jeff wrote:

    Nothing much more complicated than the Zhuangzi?
    Damn, and I was saving that for after I had a bit more classical chinese under my belt. Maybe thats because the only part of it I read was the bit about how everything is not everything and vice versa.

    I agree cabbies are a great source for learning swearing, but I got my foundations in internet bars. I think the cabbies have a bit more refined style than the neverending ‘cao ni ma, cao ni ma’ coming from the kids playing CS tho.

    Monday, April 2, 2007 at 1:44 pm | Permalink
  9. ABD wrote:

    Brilliant! 入木三分!

    Monday, April 2, 2007 at 3:01 pm | Permalink
  10. range wrote:

    Wow, great post.

    I love the insights that the last cabbie had for you, quite strange to get such interesting quotes out of a ride!

    Monday, April 2, 2007 at 7:37 pm | Permalink
  11. Jason wrote:

    Great post!

    Tuesday, April 3, 2007 at 11:44 pm | Permalink
  12. Bob Mrotek wrote:

    A Canticle for Leibowitz? I think only about 10 people have ever really read that book and I was one of them…about 40 years ago :)

    Wednesday, April 4, 2007 at 3:32 am | Permalink
  13. Hey, Bob — good to see you visiting from the Chinesepod comments!

    I read the book years ago, and picked up an old copy the last time I was in the States, when I saw it in a secondhand bookshop and realized that I had no real recollection of it other than having enjoyed it.

    Jeff — Zhuangzi is (in a lot of places) about as easy as classical Chinese gets, I think. The passage “鱼之乐” seems to show up in a lot of textbooks, and rightly so: it’s clear, relatively simple, and has a cute joke hinging on the use of 安 that ties into Zhuangzi’s own conceptions of knowledge. Actually, that entire chapter — “秋水” in the Outer Chapters part of the book — is good reading. If you start from the beginning, even, the first story in the book, about the Kun and the Peng, is pretty clear going except for a couple of bits that are supposedly later incursions into the text. Certainly I’d take Zhuangzi over Confucius any day for comprehensibility, no matter what the drunk dude at the potsticker joint might say.
    I’ve yet to really look at Guanzi, but the passage here is pretty straightforward too — though now that I’ve gone and said that, I’m sure someone will point out mistakes in my translation.

    Wednesday, April 4, 2007 at 3:37 am | Permalink
  14. Meursault wrote:

    I had to study 秋水 at university and it’s great stuff, but the easiest stuff we ever did had to be the “Tales from the Make-do Studio”. Most of the stories were guided by the same morality (women=BAD), so you could pretty much guess how each story ended.

    Thursday, April 5, 2007 at 12:40 am | Permalink
  15. Tuur wrote:

    Even I have read the Canticle, about 20 years ago. Still have the copy. And being Belgian I’m not even a native speaker of English.

    I understand it was quite a bestseller in its day.

    Rightfully so: it’s a very enjoyable, thought-provoking book with a practically unique angle.

    Thursday, April 5, 2007 at 4:48 am | Permalink
  16. Froog wrote:

    Cabbies the world over are renowned for their garrulousness. Unsurprising, given their limited opportunities for social contact, other than with their fares.

    I suspect the key difference that makes the cabbie anecdote such a ubiquitous feature of expat life in China, and perhaps especially so in Beijing, is that even poor language students can afford to take taxis on a pretty regular basis. There can’t be many other places in the world where that is true, not to the extent that it is here.

    I once got picked up by a great guy on Guanghua Lu who proceeded to slag off Jiang Zemin and the CCP in pretty passable English. He told me he used to like to hang around outside the old John Bull Pub, so that he’d get plenty of chances to practise.

    Thursday, April 5, 2007 at 12:42 pm | Permalink
  17. MF wrote:

    Once in Shenzhen I had this cab driver who seemed all coked up and kept telling me about how much he liked Eleanor Roosavelt. He was driving really fast and shouting everything. He was like some sort of Chinese Roberto Benigni.

    Thursday, April 5, 2007 at 3:22 pm | Permalink
  18. Richard wrote:

    The thing is, I wouldn’t be allowed to write about Gong Li’s boobs as enthusiastically as you, being corporate and all, so I have to have my pleasures vicariously…
    Great post.

    Friday, April 6, 2007 at 11:52 pm | Permalink
  19. Lan wrote:

    I had to look up “slattern” girlfriends. Great post.

    Sunday, April 8, 2007 at 10:57 pm | Permalink
  20. JB wrote:

    Yet another wonderful post Brendan.

    I am curious however, in what ways exactly has America disappointed you over these years? I think it would make for an interesting post.

    Tuesday, April 10, 2007 at 12:40 am | Permalink
  21. AlwaysKoke wrote:

    Just stumble in…and Wow!

    Find your words fascinating within 5 sec

    Pity you haven’t post anything in chinese since ChunJie 春节, easy to imagine how many regulars are devastating & miserably F5 your homepage again and again…

    then about the cabbies, They were, are and will be chatty and Mr/Mrs/Miss Universe till the end of time…well, at least in Beijing. Cab Driver is a relevantly good job, it paid well (at least not bad) and it’s strictly licensed which means no competitor boosting, as far as I know, Peikingese won’t give it up to the outsiders easily, they’ll bark and bite!!!

    Personally I like chatty cabbies very much, most of time they are such professional gossiper whom never cease to amaze you with their suspicious stories (mostly about some current/former high powers). Then if you’re really really tired or not in the mood, they always get a pretty fast hunch and just zip it /or start to tell the most boring story about themselves in a chanting manner – that makes me fall asleep fast and sound – so either way it’s a win-win situation.

    Wednesday, April 18, 2007 at 9:08 pm | Permalink
  22. liny wrote:

    “A 煎饼 Beijing-style omelet”?
    Oh, come on, I am disappointed. 煎饼 is really from Tianjin. You’ve been to Tianjin, haven’t you? It isn’t a suburb of Beijing :)
    I used to hate what they sold as 煎饼 on the streets of Beijing. They weren’t authentic. Too much flour or corn mills mixed into the batter (it should be a pure green bean batter), which made the pancakes too sticky. Anyway, that was more than a decade ago. I hope it has changed, like SO many other things have.
    BTW, how come there’s no more new blogs in Chinese? I was fascinated by how well you write in Chinese.

    Friday, April 27, 2007 at 12:49 am | Permalink
  23. Kay wrote:

    Ah, so you have still been posting, just not in Chinese and not on LJ. I hope some day soon you find time to write another fabulous Chinese post or two, certain of us are eager to 学你的!

    About cabbie anecdotes: Firstly, Chinese cabbies are the alpha and omega of conversation practice, because they span the gamut of accents, articulacy etc. and can give you a speaking session at whatever level you provide. Secondly, if you’re quite a sheltered little foreign student, it’s possible you don’t often have contact with Chinese people other than coddled students and the nouveau-riche, i.e. your fellow innocents, so you’re quite likely to find the personage at the wheel novel. I just love taking taxis because as someone else just said, I would rarely hail them in other countries. Here I find it exhilarating to be suddenly standing at the side of the road in the rain in the dark, droves of the conveyances of the night swooping past, and all you have to do to be safe and moving is to stick out a little pale paw and one will come and get you. If that was Edinburgh we students would be like, right, let’s start walking then.

    Brendan: amazing cabbie anecdote, but I love the drunks in the potsticker place too. “Potsticker,” ha ha!

    Sunday, May 13, 2007 at 11:46 am | Permalink

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