April 26, 2010

Taxi Talk

In the last few months, as James and I have become more confident with our conversational Chinese, we have been braving the waters of chatting with taxi drivers.  If you think about it, it is the perfect built in opportunity to practice conversational Chinese, and to become more confident with colloquial speech.  You are essentially stuck in the car with a common citizen and have nothing to do but sit.  James has been braver about this than I have.  The driver's accent is always a hit and miss as far as comprehension goes.  Beijingers tend to put a strong "rrrr" (kind of like pirate speak!) sound at the end of every word, which distorts their speech to varying degrees.  However, I too have been becoming more brave, and let me tell you, it is worth it!  They are always very talkative, they hold strong opinions about a wide variety of topics and they are curious about you too.  Some of our most interesting conversations have come out of taxi rides.

First comes the pleasantries.  "Where are you from?"  And that's where the pleasantries end, because as soon as we say Canada we hear one of two things.  "You must know Bai Qiu En!" or "You must know Da Shan!".  These two are, respectively, a Canadian doctor who helped the Communists during their revolution and a Canadian TV star here in China who is famous for his impeccable Chinese.  To this we usually respond, "Actually, before I came to China, I had never heard of him."  They find this very hard to believe.

The taxi drivers are usually between forty and sixty, so we usually here about the doctor, Bai Quien rather than DaShan.  His real name was Norman Bethune and he was apparently best buddies with Mao Zedong (or you would think so to hear Chinese people talk about him).  However it seems that he is remembered only for his revolutionary zeal, and not for his shortcomings (womanizing, alcoholism and the like).  He died of sepsis before the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, and as such has been awarded immense post humas fame and respect.  As strange as it may seem, this little known Canadian has won us instant approval from countless taxi drivers.  One driver told us that we and he had a very close relationship, just like Mao and Bai Quien, and as such did not want to accept payment from us!

Here are some highlights of interesting conversations.

There is one taxi driver, who always waits in our area of town, whom we have almost become friends with.  He has the deepest, rumbliest voice I have ever heard.  I'm not kidding, the combination of smoking for several decades, plus living in pollution, plus genetics have given this man a voice that sounds like the Indian chief from the Peter Pan cartoon.  This particular driver's distinctive characteristic is that he loves learning phrases in other languages.  He proudly told us that he can greet people and say "Your wife is very beautiful" in several different languages, including but not limited to: Italian, English, Spanish, French, Korean, Thai, German, Japanese and Russian.  It was very strange to hear "guten tag", "bonjour", "ciao", "privet", "hola" etc. coming from this deep rumbling man with a thick Beijing accent!  James added to his collection by telling him how to say those things in Khmer.  

I had a driver last week who had a different response when I told him that I was Canadian.  He said "Your prime minister's name is Ha Le Po" (which is Stephen Harper's Chinese name).  I looked at him in shock and asked him how he knew that.  No one in China, even foreigners or Canadians, has ever mentioned Stephen Harper to me.  His response was that he knows all of the world leaders and their country's political situations.  I didn't believe him, so I quizzed him on the few that I knew, and his smirk got deeper and deeper with each one he answered correctly.  After I had exhausted  my knowledge, he went on to list the leaders of obscure countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America.  After each one, he paused to look at me and say, "Am I right?", and of course looked very satisfied when I had to say "Sorry, I have no idea!".  Of course, I felt at a great disadvantage.  All of the leaders and countries have Chinese names that sound vaguely like the names I know.  When I know what is trying to be said, I can understand it.  For example, I know that Gordon Brown is the leader in England, so when I hear his Chinese name, I can recognize it.  But even though I could ask him who Spain's or Italy's leaders are, I couldn't understand the name he gave.  He then proceeded to quiz me on Canadian/Chinese relations, to which I had to plead ignorant.

Today I had a 50-year-driver who looked at me with great dissatisfaction and asked, "If you are from Canada, why is your nose bigger than mine?"  
I had to laugh at this unexpected inquiry and didn't have a chance to respond before he asked "Do YOU think that my nose is too small?"  
I had to tell him honestly that I had not noticed his nose, and that I thought most other people wouldn't notice either.  But he was not satisfied and then asked "Why do I have such a small nose?  Tell me!"  
I hazarded a guess, "Maybe your Mom and Dad had small noses too?".  
But apparently they didn't.  He continued, "People in Russia have big noses."  
I responded, "Yes, but I think Russian people's noses are sometimes too big."
He laughed.  "Its true.  Once I had a Russian in my cab and I asked him, 'When you Russians kiss each other, do you have to push your nose to the side with your hand?'"
I laughed very hard at that.  It seems that he was so pleased at making me laugh that he never told me what the Russian said in response, and we arrived at my destination shortly thereafter.  

Before I go, here is a brief update on the visit to Ari's school.  When I arrived, the teachers were making the students practice quietness.  One student after another would walk quietly to the other side of the room and then back again, while the teacher praised the student's stealth to the rest of the class.  "See how he makes no noise? Do you hear any noise? This is very good!"  After this they proceeded to the English lesson, which Ari is far beyond.  The teacher held up flash cards with English words and pictures and Ari inevitably was the first to yell out the answer and the other kids would repeat after Ari.  What a wonder he gets his best grades in English!  They then proceeded to the geography lesson where they identified counties on a map of Asia and learned city names and locations.  Its certainly the first kindergarten I have been to where kids are learning the location of New Dehli.  

That's all for now!


Dustin said...

Grrr... Da Shan, Da Shan... I grew so tired of being asked if I knew Da Shan.

Beth Ann said...

Loved the Taxi stories. Here in Nicaragua all the drivers like to tell me how they hate the American government, but that Americans are great! It´s all about politics here with the taxi drivers.... seems like it´s that way all around the world.

Hope all is well with you chica.

Blessings from Nicaragua.