Trying to hail a taxi in Beijing is, best as I can tell, near impossible at times.
Maybe it’s the time of day – or the driver’s unwillingness to drive short distances – or maybe the “dog eat dog” attitude of another bystander who hijacked my cab. So I wait, on the street corner, breathing the fumes of a hundred occupied taxi cabs as they continue past my waving hand. Puffs of cigarette smoke occasionally float downwind omitted from a bum panhandling in the street a few yards from where I’m standing.
Eventually I nab a taxi. As I open a door, a wall of smoke leaps out at me as the driver furiously puffs away. First thing I notice is the taxi drivers name on a white card on the dashboard. The driver barks at me “Qu Nar?!?!?!??”, the Chinese equivalent of “Where to?”. We slowly make our way across the city, passing rows of concrete high rise buildings along the highway. The smoggy air, paints the city in a drab, sepia color. The passing buildings, remind me of a black a white movie reel flickering from a projector as they flash by the window as we continue along the highway.
I attempt to strike up conversation with the driver of the taxi asking him “so are you from Beijing”? and am met with a typical Beijing taxi driver response as his finger points to his name card. Like many other drivers, he is uninterested in any conversation. He seems focused on getting me to my destination as quickly as possible in order to turn another taxi fare. I glance over at him, taking a peak and notice – he looks miserable.
Over the years that I spent living in Beijing, I spoke to enough taxi drivers and Beijingers to get the real scoop on why Beijing taxi drivers have the worst attitudes. There are multiple reasons why, actually. China's success as the factory of the world, and dragon economy, have fueled increasing life pressures. Increased inflation and cost of living have created unbearable life pressure for the “average Joe”. While the rich are getting richer, the middle class is shrinking, and the poor? Well – lets just say the poorest people in China no longer live in the countryside. It’s the countryside workers who move to the city in search of work. With no specialized skills or education, they end up with a factory job, waiting tables in a restaurant, or worse – with no job at all. Making under 7 yuan an hour (under $1 an hour), living in city where the cost of real estate has risen more than 150% since 2003. It’s a tough life.
Many city workers live in “ant farms” or suburb apartment buildings where 10 tenants share an apartment to lower the cost of rent. Some rent a space in mechanical rooms in the basements and bomb shelters of larger apartment complexes. So how does this relate to our Beijing taxi driver friends? They have certainly felt the rise of life pressures in the past several years. All taxi drivers are from Beijing, and the fares they charge are controlled by the government. Even though the fares in Beijing are some of the highest in the country, the take home pay of the drivers is still very low, and isn’t enough (according to numerous Beijing drivers I’ve spoken with). Many drivers spend 12 hours a day driving and take home very little money for their families, but have no choice, as jobs in Beijing are hard to come by.
Is a smile too much to ask for? Is it okay to expect quality service in China? Is increasing life pressure an indication that government intervention is needed? Is life pressure in China a valid excuse for poor service? Well...personally I think its up to you. What do you think?