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Hailing Cabs With Chinese Characteristics

by on January 16, 2013

It was 7:30 am as we stepped out from Beijing station, but any lingering fatigue from the 16 hour train ride was immediately zapped by the piercing cold. We hurriedly made our way across the snow-covered square to the taxi stand which, to our dismay, was burgeoning with travelers but bereft of taxis.

“If you wait in that line, it’ll be two hours before you get a taxi,” said a female voice with a thick Beijing accent, adding “r to the end of every word. I turned to face a tall, thin Chinese woman. Her tucked-in uniform and air of confidence evoked authority. “Where do you want to go?”

“Tsinghua University,” I said. “Can you take us there?”

“I can get you a driver that will for 100 kuai plus the meter.”

I turned back to Jacob and Ben. “What do you think?” I asked in English.

“I just need to get back in time for class,” said Ben.

“It’s cooold,” murmured Jacob. He had a point. Perhaps it was because we were so anxious to escape the cold that we overlooked the strange nature of her proposal. Most drivers will take you places either by the meter or for a fixed price; rarely are the two combined.

“Meter plus 20 kuai,” I said to the woman.

“Meter plus 70,” came the reply.

“40,” I said.

“Fine. But I need the 40 kuai now, before you get in the car.”

There were three of us, and there was one of her. I handed over the money.

She hopped over the metal railing, meant to ensure that people lined up for taxis in an orderly fashion, and she motioned for us to follow. She walked about 10 yards up the street from the taxi stand and waved at the oncoming cabs. A taxi pulled over.

“Get in!” She said, opening the cab door and tossing our bags inside.

“But this isn’t your driver,” I said.

A commotion stirred at the taxi line as indignant travelers realized they were being punished for their patience. Meanwhile, the empty taxis behind started honking.

“Quickly!” She said, practically shoving us inside.

“But!-”

Bang! The door slammed shut. As the taxi lurched forward, she plastered on a smile and waved a sarcastic goodbye. With a click, the meter turned on. The driver turned to us. “Where to?” And it was over.

We’d just paid a woman 40 kuai to cut the line and hail a cab.

I’d been swindled by a sharp-witted, uneducated woman at a train station in China. There was something ludicrous about it; and something magical, too. After months in China, after thinking I was familiar with all the devious tricks of the trade, after tackling the language that had once seemed so difficult and befriending people who had once seemed so foreign, it was at once refreshing and liberating to know that I’m still vulnerable. My learning is not yet done.

Riding in that cab back to Tsinghua, I wondered at that woman’s daring. That woman cheated me not because she was evil but because she was clever; because she realized that in a country where laws are liquid and cash is too, boldness pays even if it sometimes means bending rules that weren’t written in stone to begin with. Though China’s institutions are getting more orderly and honest, there are still too many hou men, or “back doors” to doing business and politics. Hence the Guangdong farmer who complained to me of local elections being bought (20 to 30 kuai per vote); the Beijing poker bar that gets around anti-gambling laws by having clients gamble refundable “points;” the friend applying to study in America, whose father gave the principal a “gift” to have his son’s grades changed to straight A’s. China’s entrepreneurial spirit is tempered only by the corruption that it engenders. Though most people queue up to get a taxi, there are still those who find it profitable to cut the line.

Perhaps there’s nothing unusual about cheating, trickery, or corruption in a developing country (or even in a developed one, for that matter, though perhaps the schemes become more intricate). But China is learning – after all, you can only be tricked so much before you learn to catch the tricksters. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. So thank you, swindler at the Beijing train station, for you taught me a valuable lesson.

But next time, I’ll hail my own cab.

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