Tonight I felt myself fortunate to snag a cab during rush hour, just as someone else was getting out of it. Before I hopped in the cab, I asked the driver if he would take me where I needed to go (for some reason shift change occurs at the height of rush hour). He agreed, so I hopped in and off we went. I told him the way I wanted to go and within two or three minutes ascertained that he was native to Guangzhou. I typically do this to gauge how alert I need to be and to make sure I don’t get "driven around." After seeing that we are going in the correct general direction, then I’m free to let my mind wander.
But not this evening. The taxi driver began telling me — in Cantonese which I don’t speak — about the problems associated with so many outsiders coming to live in Guangzhou. They bring their bad habits, their bad ways, they drive up prices . . . to be honest most of it was beyond my language comprehension, especially as it was in Cantonese. He got really animated. I tried my best to listen, because it’s good practice to listen, but I was worried that the moment might come when I would have to express either agreement or disagreement or answer a question. At some point my utter incomprehension would catch up with me, I was sure. After some long sentence, I imagined the taxi driver asking me, "Do you agree?" and then what would I say, if I had understood nothing? Especially if he felt adamantly about something, I wouldn’t want to risk answering the question in the wrong way!
I found myself yearning for one of my daughters to be with me, since they act as my translators when I’m in a pinch. When they’re around, I can retreat to mindless riding in the taxi and let them take over the translation responsibilities. After all, it takes some mental effort. But they weren’t there, and I had to listen.
But the dreaded moment, the moment of reckoning when I would have to confess that I understood nothing, never came. He never asked me if I understood. He just talked a very long time. Slowly, I realized that I actually understood most of what he was talking about. Additionally, the times when I told him I didn’t follow, or attempted to clarify, then he slowed down his pronunciation and speech, simplified his vocabulary, so that I could understand. When he felt I didn’t understand his Cantonese, he would switch and speak very slowly and plainly in Mandarin.
He ascertained that I was from Meiguo (America). He had opinions about everything! He talked about how all the young Chinese are trying to move to the USA but it creates problems because, since each family is only allowed one child, it leaves the parents in China with no children to care for them. I mentioned that yes, I knew someone in this situation. I have a friend who has one child who lives in the USA, and my friend doesn’t necessarily want to go live in the USA when she reaches the age when an elderly person would expect to go live with their children. The taxi driver asked me "why not?" and I replied that my friend doesn’t want to leave China. My friend’s peer group is all here. The taxi driver replied that if you don’t have money, it doesn’t matter, because nobody will be your friend anyway if you don’t have money. He said that if you have money, you can make friends no matter where you are. At least, I think that’s what he said. 😉
Then, he asked me about my own family. How many children did I have, what ages, where did they go to school? It turns out he has two daughters and one son, roughly the same ages as my three daughters. Except, he felt really lucky to get a son. In fact, he also gave me instructions on how to get a son. To my amazement, he told me that I needed to eat a lot of Pi Dan, which is what did the trick for him and his wife. Actually, I never go the courage to ask him if it was him or his wife who ate the Pi Dan. For the unitiated, Pi Dan is also known as "Hundred Year Old Eggs," which are salted and pickled and left to ferment for some long period of time. I happen to like them okay in small amounts, but one of my American friends told me that I’m the only foreigner she’s ever met who can tolerate them in even small amounts. The taste is very strong. If one chooses to eat them, she must also be careful not to eat Pi Dan in which the fermenting process has been speeded up by unsafe use of formaldeyde. Not safe! Anyway, if that’s really what he said, this kind of takes the cake on old wives tales about how to get a boy baby!
He also asked me how old I was. He said he thought I was 40, not 50. I told him I would treat him to lunch, which is what one says when a person guesses one’s age much younger than it actually is. As I looked at him, he was very thin. Very thin. I thought he must either be a heavy smoker or have cancer. I thought he looked much older than myself in spite of his jet black hair, though I wasn’t going to tell him this. I did tell him my hair color was fake. He said it was very beautiful. I wondered if he would have said that to a Chinese woman? But in fact I had just come out of the hairdressers, and my hair did look much better than my normal self.
Well, sooner or later I had to confess to my newfound friend that I didn’t really understand something he said. That’s when he launched into a long discourse to tell me that I really ought to learn Cantonese while I live in Guangzhou since everyone here speaks Cantonese and, after all, that’s also what most Chinese in the USA speak (which is true, that’s what they do speak). I replied that Cantonese was much too hard for me. Aided by this invitation, he began coaching me in Cantonese. How to say "Traffic jam," "Please move over," "right turn, left turn". If my memory were any good, I could have learned a lot of Cantonese from him.
I confess, he was the best Cantonese language coach I’ve ever had. His pronunciation was very clear and he coached me very well on how to pronounce things. He didn’t allow me to get flustered by the nine tones in Cantonese. He simply said the words clearly and I was able to imitate.
By this time we were only about halfway home. (I was wondering, would it be possible to hop out and find a different cab? But no, I thought to myself, the ride isn’t unpleasant and he’s actually trying to help me.)
Actually, it really is too bad that my memory has gotten so bad, unable to remember these easy phrases easily. Eventually, perhaps a bit like the issue with learning the dual words for "key," I could learn how to say "traffic jam" or "turn right" in both languages. At the moment, I pretty much content myself with being able to count and speak numbers in the marketplace, say "please" and "thank you." To say "turn right" is probably about next on my list. I practice counting in Cantonese every single time I buy anything at the market. It still doesn’t come naturally, especially when the words are delivered fast and I’m listening to someone say "sam sap bat" and trying to decipher at lightning speed what that exactly means.
My friend Mike would have loved this guy. Mike already speaks Chinse so much better than me, and he could have used this launching off point because he’s now learning Cantonese, with some skill I might add. I’m just not there yet. I felt really surprised at how much of the conversation I had understood, yet overwhelmed and knowing that this guy thought I understood a lot more than I really had. Mike is the kind of person who can learn a taxi driver’s entire life history from a few minutes conversation, if the guy is willing to talk. This guy was obviously friendly, helpful, and willing to talk.
I considered whether to ask the taxi driver for his phone number. When a taxi driver is outstandingly great, I often ask for his personal phone number so I can call him later if I want to go somewhere at a certain day and time. I considered. He didn’t speak a single word of English, and that is one of my criteria. It’s hard to learn a language "immersion style" when there is no common language by which to get a foothold. It really helps when the other person has enough of a knowledge of English to at least get me onto the right planet. So, I didn’t ask him for his phone number. Maybe I should have. Yah, I really should have.
My taxi fare came to 25 RMB. I gave him 30 RMB, and I told him I didn’t want the change. The 5 RMB was my thanks for the language lesson. He was totally surprised and utterly thrilled. He beamed really big and said thank you about three times. In Mandarin, I replied, "Zou hao," [go well] which is the equivalent phrase for, "Have a nice day." If only my friend Mike had been there!