This isn’t exactly my first time in China, but I would hardly consider Kunming, Dali, and Lijiang (in Yunnan Province) “cities” when Shanghai has a population of 20 million. This is definitely my first time in a Chinese city without cobblestone-paved roads, horse-drawn carriages, and yaks. In fact, I see exactly what I expected to see: grey skyscrapers, construction cranes, and more skyscrapers in the making.
In half a day, my mom and I went from Kaohsiung to Taoyuan to Hangzhou, with plans to go to Shanghai tomorrow. On the plane ride here, the gentleman sitting on our left gave us a few tips: speak as little as possible (as folks will judge by our Taiwanese accent) and only take metered taxis (to prevent overcharges). I figured I’d just be a starving mute for a few days. (Prior tips included eating as little as possible and buying as little as possible…to prevent getting diarrhea and fake merchandise.)
Being the obnoxious extrovert that she is, my mom ended up talking to our taxi driver in her wannabe-Chinese accent (“zhuo guai-r” instead of “zhuo zhuan” (left turn), naw mean?), which was possibly more insulting than reading the names of streets out loud for suspecting that the driver was going to drive in circles (and gyp us of a few extra bucks). He didn’t. (He also didn’t know the location of our hotel and had to call for directions while driving on the divider.) I was only concerned about the rackety door with loose hinges and the mysterious noises coming from his engine. I feared that if he stepped on the break, the door would come loose and I’d be flung into the middle of the freeway as to-be roadkill—and that would’ve been the end of my journey.
Well as with most beginnings, I come into contact with a taxi driver with an interesting story to hear or tell. In Denver, our Ethiopian driver told us about how he moved there to support his sister in college. In San Francisco, our turbaned driver joined in our conversation about Salesforce. In Brunei, our driver kept telling us about what he knew about our Obama versus his sultan. In Malaysia, our driver was stopped mid-freeway past midnight after driving 160km/hr while we had our passports checked. In Thailand, I’ve sat in back of a tuk-tuk driver who couldn’t read Thai or mutter a word of English (and needed a third party translator at the wrong location). When we first arrived in Taiwan, our driver shared his near-death experiences falling asleep at the wheel and driving down the day after a typhoon (then proceeded to stuff five business cards in my hands to pass on for him). I’ve also got the “Where you from? China? Korea?…wait you from California?! You no look American!” quite a few times.
Being voluntarily mute this time, there was no Babel-like banter, but I did make a few observations. This Chinese driver spoke Shanghainese to a lady on the phone, which meant he probably wasn’t a Hangzhou native (but being the giant tourist trap that Hangzhou is, he probably had more customers here). He couldn’t read the address and directions my mom wrote down (which were in traditional Chinese, but most people can guestimate between traditional and simplified). He looked relatively young, drove quite recklessly, and had no malintentions of overcharging us or taking us someplace else. He also had no intentions of talking to us or even glancing at the rear view mirror until the very end when he wanted his money, but he wasn’t unlikeable either.
China is possibly the least-personable country I’ve ever visited, but then again, I’ve only met one taxi driver behind a plexiglass barrier so far. (There was no bellboy at the Sheraton to bring our luggage in for us, nor did the reception lady smile much.) It has only been an uneventful first day though, and I haven’t ingested any chemically treated, meat-flavored cardboard yet, so my hopes are still high! I promise to rave on and on about Shanghai’s spectacular architecture, cuisine, and shopping as soon as I figure out how to get there via which train at what time from which stop for how much…and who to contact so I don’t stay mute forever.
Every 30 minutes or so, a train passes by directly beneath us. I feel like I’m traveling indefinitely…on and on with no set destination. Every 30 minutes, my auditory senses tell me so.