Christmas is a’coming, and I needed to buy some seriously hard-to-find items for the Christmas Dinner party we have planned for Friday night (Nick invited 25 of his classmates, a mix of Chinese, Americans, British, Koreans and Kazakhs). On the list of next-to-impossible things: large garbage bags, a pan to cook a turkey in, and canned pumpkin. I set out to Metro, a large restaurant-supply grocery store on the eastern edge of town. It’s a bit like Costo meets a Chinese grocery store meets Home Depot. As such, respectively, there are great deals on meat, economy-size bags of terrible cookies, and lots of heavy equipment rolling around the aisles willy-nilly. It’s in a warehouse and takes 40 minutes by cab. It’s a haul. I go there as seldom as possible and buy as much as I can carry, which is about 85 pounds in a huge Gregory backpack. (I know I’ve succeeded if the backpack is so heavy it makes my pants fall halfway down my ass as I search for a cab.)
Today I had moderate success: miracle of miracles, they had a turkey-sized pan and large trash bags, but, alas, no pumpkin in a can. (I resorted to buying it online from a Shanghai grocery store than delivers, for the thrifty price of $7/can. I know. But it’s pie, so no expense will be spared.) I lugged my goodies towards the door, and on the way a sign in English caught my eye: Metro has a free taxi-calling service. Just ask! Sweet, I thought. You’re about as likely to catch a cab midday in the eastern outskirts of Hangzhou as you are to stand in a bathroom line at the train station and not get cut. I asked at the service desk for a cab, and the woman proceeded to call all the different dispatchers, except she didn’t call them in a row. She paused in between each call to flirt with the stock boy who was (literally) hanging over the desk. I pressed her to keep at it, but who am I except an annoying waiguoren who needs help with a cab? Finally, when she turned her back to me to focus all her attention on the boy, I leaned over the desk and said, “What’s up? Is it coming or not?” And she said, with a dismissive wave of her hand, “Mei you.” This is Chinese for “there is none,” and it stops a conversation dead in its tracks. If you are smart, you do not pursue a “mei you” further. There is no reason, there just isn’t one. (When we first arrived in China, we wanted to take the subway from the airport to our friends’ house. They had given us directions, but when we arrived at the place where the subway should have been [according to all the signs], there was a security guard with white gloves who waved his hands and said, simply, “Mei you.” And that was that.)
I marched outside, mad at the wasted time, and immediately saw a cab cruising across the parking lot. I flagged him down, assured him that I was the one who requested his services, and flopped in. “They told me there weren’t any cabs,” I said, chagrined. “What? That’s not true. I told them I was eating lunch, and when I was finished, I would come by. I ate, and now here I am.”
In China, it is a lucky day when you get stuck with a garrulous cab driver: once they establish that you can understand even a smidgen of Chinese, they will spout off about various and only loosely-related topics in the most glorious free association the world has ever heard. You as the passenger only has to listen attentively and give a hearty “dui” in agreement every now and again; but you have to stay on your toes, because a chatty cab driver will happily give his rollicking monologue for ten straight minutes, then pause and ask a question of you, at which point, if you are me, you will have to ask him to repeat the question three times before you can stammer out an answer. (Thankfully, my lack of grace and fluency in Chinese does not stanch the cab driver’s verbal diarrhea—he is not dissuaded at all, and will praise my halting speech every time I answer his softball questions.)
Nick has long said that a long cab ride in China lets you put your finger on the pulse of the city in the most enjoyable way possible, and even his International Relations professor (a Chinese man) concurs: when he goes to Taiwan to study the elections, he pays a cabbie to drive him around in circles, just so they can chat. Sociological research is being done here, people.
Today I got exceptionally lucky. What follow are the precious few snippets I understood on my cab ride home from Metro, presented in chronological order so you can see the train of thought:
“In China, women don’t get very fat when they are pregnant, and when they have the baby, they lose the baby weight very quickly. But in other countries, I think it is different: women who have young babies are often still fat. But when I saw you running towards the cab, I didn’t know you had a young baby, because you are not fat.”
“Your baby is 8.5 months old and still drinks breast milk? This is too old; the milk is not good any more. In China, women do not feed their babies breast milk after 6 months. Also, if your baby is still nursing, don’t you think he must be starving right now, since you are not home to feed him?”
“I heard in America people can have as many babies as they want. Is this true? It must be very, very expensive if you have a lot of babies.”
“I see you have a backpack. That’s really good. Chinese women don’t carry heavy bags. They make their husbands or boyfriends carry their bags. It’s ridiculous! Carrying a backpack is comfortable, but a Chinese woman will not wear abackpack, and she will say she cannot carry her purse, so the man has to carry it for her. But, look!”—here he pointed to the crosswalk, where three women in high-heeled boots traipsed by, laden with shopping bags—“Those women are carrying heavy bags from their shopping trip, all by themselves! They can do it!”
Cabbie: “When Chinese people see you, do they yell out ‘waiguoren’?”
Me: “Yes, and I don’t like it very much.
Cabbie: “Well, in China, that’s what we do. Do people do that in America?”
Me: “No, in America, if we see a foreigner, we don’t say anything.”
Cabbie: “But you must say something if the foreigner is a black person, right? For example, in New York City, there are many different kinds of foreigners, like Chinese people and Japanese people, but if you see a black person, you could say, ‘Black person!,’ right?”
Me: “No, we wouldn’t do that.”
Cabbie: “Well, here, we do. But if we see a Korean person, we don’t do that, because they probably look a lot like a Chinese person.”
“Isn’t the rent incredibly high here? It’s high all over China. We don’t make as much money as you do in America, but our rent is much higher.”
“Do you like to eat steak?” (Me: “Um, sometimes. We prefer chicken, or eggs.”) “What? [incredulous] You don’t like steak?”
And then we were at my building. He didn’t have correct change for my bill, so he undercharged me, and before I could protest, he sped off into the afternoon.