As I jump in the taxi I wonder how I am going to handle the inevitable five questions and the over-the-top compliment.
Am I going to be a taikong ren (space alien) today when asked where I'm from? Perhaps I'll use the standard Canadian line and try to get a reaction by claiming to be the grandson of revered humanitarian Norman Bethune.
Perhaps I'll test him with Chairman Mao's eulogy of the good doctor Yi ge wai guo ren, bu yuan wan li, lai dao Zhongguo.
Any driver older than 35 (younger ones usually need a few hints) has studied his passage and immediately identify me as someone from north of the "pretty country" or Meiguo (aka the United States).
Will I play the one-child-two-wives joke? Will I tell him I've been in Beijing just six months "zhe yi ci" (this time) and then explain my first two years in Beijing were in the 1980s?
Will I tell the driver that I hear "Ni de Zhongwen na mo hao" (your Chinese is so good) about 10 times a day, and he shouldn't "kua jiang wo" (flatter me)?
Perhaps I'll just get all the formalities out of the way and let him know I'm a Zhongguo nu xu (China son-in-law) and settle into a down-to-earth discussion about life. Did you know that Beijing cabbies know everything?
Taxi drivers have been my best Chinese teachers. Really, I've learned more words and phrases from them than any other teacher. There are several reasons. Take any cab on any given day to any destination and it's a certainty that you'll be talking about the same things over and over again.
It gives you chances to practise talking about yourself and what you've learned from the last ride and maybe add a word or two to the vocabulary.
There's also something about the situational learning that helps words stick in the sieve upstairs, but I think it's the cabbies themselves.
They are the salt of the earth and will tell you exactly the way it is. They especially appreciate someone who can ask for their opinion and (at least seemingly) understand the reply.
I've had many a Mandarin epiphany in a Beijing taxi. I remember as a Beijing newbie telling the cabbie in my stilted foreign accent, "Wo shi Jianadaren" (I'm Canadian).
This led him, and every driver since, to mention "Bet-chew-wen die-few" or at least it sounded like that back then. I just had no clue what he was talking about.
Determined to make himself understood, he plays an elaborate charade, taking both hands off the steering wheel to pantomime a machine gun firing which didn't help me understand but made me laugh.
He then pretends to stitch a wound in his head and I thought he was also losing his mind, as I was mine. Still, I had no idea what he was trying to say.
I pay the fare and get dropped off and it finally strikes me. He's talking about the great Canadian Dr Bethune or Bai qiu en dai fu, who died sewing up wounded Eighth Route Army soldiers prior to liberation (during the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression).
I chase the cab before he gets away and pound the hood. I couldn't let him go without knowing that I finally knew who and what he was talking about. Cue a huge smile on both our faces we made a connection and we both had a story to tell.
Now, 15 years later I've returned to the north capital and the massive bian hua (changes) make me feel like I've landed for the first time. Yet there's a huge difference from my first arrival.
I can actually speak Chinese quite well. I'm no longer an island. I can actually participate in life. Not only can I converse on the street or subway but I can hear what's being said around me. It feels like a huge barrier has been raised.
Now I even have to catch myself looking around for the foreigner when I hear someone nearby say "Ni kan, lao wai'" (Look at the foreigner). Of course it's me they're whispering about, and thankfully I rarely hear the phrase anymore.
So today I jump in the cab and right on cue the first question is "Ni shi na er ren" (Where are you from)? The space alien joke is getting old so I pull the Bethune test and the driver (who turns out to be 47 years old, which he divulges right after I was asked my age) knew I was Canadian half way through the first line. "Yi ge wai guo ren, bu" "Jia na da!" he interjects.
"Right, Da jia na" (everyone takes) I say, getting a laugh.
It's barely a 15 minute ride and not only does he learn my age, martial status, number of offspring, work place, views on Beijing, the weather in Canada, but he apologies for China's population. It's all a pretty routine interrogation until he pulls a new one and asks if he can, "gei nin chang ge." I actually think I've misunderstood but, no, he wants to sing me a song.
Of course I agree but he insists we roll up the windows before he begins. "Ni you qian, wo you qian, shi jie mai bu cheng" He's so utterly serious and cute I have to keep a straight face. Turns out the driver's something of a philosopher.
His catchy folk song explaining that "you have money, I have money, the world cannot buy" was written by the man himself. He's surprised, and so I am, that I understand every verse.
I think of all the driver-teachers I've ridden with to get me to this moment. Thank you Beijing cabbies.
(China Daily 06/16/2006 page14)