Speaking of hacks, when I don’t want to walk, I hail a cab, which, in and of itself, is a choose-your-own-adventure tour de force of spectacular proportions. I’m not enough of an Americaphile asshole to have expected taxi drivers in China to speak my language, but I did, at the very least, expect them to know the geographic layout of their own city. Taxi rides, as it turns out, are total crapshoots. More often than not, I find myself desperately trying to summon the Mandarin words for “Take a left at the giant Mao statue,” or “No, sir, the Mexican/Mediterranean karaoke bar is on the Fourth Ring Road,” or even, “Please look out for the bicycle that’s about to wrap itself around your — OOF! — fender,” before resorting to a madcap routine of pointing and gesturing that usually only gets me within a 17-block radius of where I’m trying to go. This is after I’ve thrust into the hands of the confounded driver the address and directions, written in Chinese characters.
I suppose I’ve been spoiled by Boston cabbies, who know the city and its surrounding urban arteries like the back of their tobacco-stained hands, who could navigate the length of the McGrath/O’Brien Highway without taking their eyes off their newspaper. I’ve learned to choose my Beijing cabbie based on their license number: the six-digit key to a driver’s years of experience and an unofficial indicator of their street savvy. License numbers 150100 and below generally guarantee that the driver has ventured outside of his vehicular comfort zone at least once or twice. Higher than that, and it’s a good chance that the man or woman steering your rickety yellow vehicle down the highway got his or her driver’s license within the past few months — and quite possibly out of a cereal box.
The great white ghost
Once I finally reach my destination, if it’s anywhere outside the somewhat comforting realm of my dormitory residence, I am forced to dodge a gauntlet of flashbulbs and awkward gawking. No, I am not Angelina Jolie (no veritable United Nations of ankle biters for me, thank you very much), but I am white. A White Ghost, to be precise, a foreigner with light skin and kinky hair who is of average height in Kenmore Square but who in Beijing towers over crowds and holds her chopsticks like a retarded pony. In historic Tiananmen Square, a hub for public gatherings and political slaughtering, I am apparently the main attraction, fending off countless requests for photographs and hugs. At first, I thought the Chinese were mistaking me for someone else: the fatter, older sister of an Olsen twin, perhaps. (Hey, it’s not totally crazy.) But no, it turns out that many Chinese, especially those from rural provinces, have never seen a real live foreigner before, and they are desperate for a memento, a photograph, a lock of hair. (I wish I were kidding.)