It’s a 35-minute walk door to door to my work, which is just long enough for hot weather, bad air or jet lag to provide an excuse to jump in a rickshaw. Last week, when all three combined to equip me with the right dose of self pity, I felt confident enough to try interacting in Mandarin, and shameless enough to sit in the rickshaw with an iced coffee in my hand and a new Macbook Pro in my bag while the poor driver exposed himself to the heat and smog to take me five blocks to my air-conditioned office.
The initial interaction goes like this.
‘Yo tang,’ I say the destination as clearly and loudly as I can bring myself to. I pray for the flicker of recognition to appear in the driver’s eyes. Expats learn from painful experience that it’s no good dressing up the destination with fancy ‘hello’s and ‘do you think you could possibly take me to’s. Also, it’s no good giving instructions that are more complicated than a well-known landmark or a junction between two major roads. Rather than trying to direct them to the exact location and find yourself being charged double on arrival, it’s best to just get off, and spend the next five minutes walking to your destination.
Most of the time, the rickshaw driver is far more familiar with locations than a taxi driver is, especially if it’s local, so usually he – or she – will nod and gesture for me to climb in.
‘Duoshao?’ I do the smart thing and ask them how much the journey will cost before I get in.
‘Shi wu kuai qian,’ the driver might reply. But depending on their age and accent, ‘shi’ (ten) can sound like ‘si’ (four) and a mysterious ‘ge’ appears before the ‘kuai’, or more often than not, they say it so fast and so dismissively that I don’t catch a thing. By this point, they have a twinkle in their eye because they’ve worked out I’m not Chinese even though I look Chinese, which could just signify that they’re faintly amused, or that they’ve seen the opportunity to scam me.
That’s me just being paranoid though, or so I like to think. I’ve heard a few stories now about how the rickshaw or taxi driver may or may not have wilfully misunderstood the directions then charged extra to turn back. But given my bad Chinese, and the overwhelming evidence of just how difficult it is to understand each other even between two Chinese people if you don’t speak in the same dialect, I may well be the one to blame.
This happened to me on Wednesday. It was my fault really, I got too confident and added ‘southeast corner’ to my directions to a junction, except I should have said ‘dongnan’ (east south) not ‘nandong’ (south east). And, as my Chinese teacher told me later, I should have said ‘jiaohui’ instead of ‘lukou’, even though both mean junction and ‘lukou’ was what I learned in the textbook. Thanks again, textbook.
I got on, and as the half-motorised rickshaw sped off I did the three things I usually do at this point. First, I scrambled in my wallet to find the right notes ready to hand over, so I don’t have to do it in the middle of the street and so, I’m ashamed to say, I don’t give the driver the opportunity to say they don’t have the right change and drive away with more than the fare. Second, I crossed my arms under my boobs – an essential act of self-protection since rickshaws are so fast and so violently rattly over the bumpy roads that it physically hurts the mammary glands. Third, I let my mind wander so that I can pretend I’m on a rather cool theme park ride, rather than speeding diagonally across the wrong way up a six-lane road.
Even when I realised that we were going the wrong way, I didn’t stop the driver immediately. Firstly because I was a bit nervous of yelling out of the rickshaw or tapping her back, and secondly because I thought there could be a reason why she had to turn left instead of going straight – perhaps she didn’t want to pass the guards standing by that imposing-looking building or it was in the territory of another rickshaw gang.
But by the time she stopped at the wrong end of one of the roads I’d mentioned, nowhere near the junction I wanted, I knew she had got it wrong. I refused to get off and tried to show her the map on my phone, which for some reason she wouldn’t do. For lack of knowing what else to do, I repeated my instructions, exactly as before. She nodded and said, ‘shi wu kuai qian, shi wu kuai qian, yigong sanshi kuai qian,’ indicating it was 15 yuan here, and another 15 yuan to the correct destination, so 30 yuan in total. I couldn’t think of the words to express my frustration, so I just nodded back. She sped off and took me to the right location without a hitch.
Considering that even 30 yuan is the equivalent of £3 (to convert RMB to GBP you just need to drop a 0, which saves Brits attempting arithmetic), it’s hardly a great loss. And probably a big gain for the woman rickshaw driver, who I imagine has kids and ageing parents waiting at home. But it’s the principle of the thing, as expats always say when an ayi cheats them, or when in the UK people refuse to give money to the homeless on the street. It’s funny how we can spend so much time huffing and puffing over a couple of pounds, then walk into a restaurant and order a second glass of wine without a thought.
But as far as spending pocket money goes, getting a rickshaw – sometimes twice – every day can become a rather expensive habit, not unlike when I used to get a £2.70 flat white every morning in London. Whatever gets me through the day though, and makes me contribute to the local economy is no bad thing, I tell myself. Especially when I look so good in the process, clutching my breasts with my face frozen in fright, iced coffee spilling over my dress.
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