For instance, I have full confidence I can get home in a cab, if by “home” I mean within walking distance of the apartment we rent. I used to say “Dongzhimen,” which is the well-known subway stop near our home. It’s kind of like saying “Metro Center” in the District.
There was always a follow-up question, which I assumed meant, “But where at Dongzhimen? Which side of the street? Near which subway entrance?”
In the beginning, I used to shrug and just repeat “Dongzhimen” like an idiot, hoping that I could just get to some part of Dongzhimen, which is a 10-minute walk from our apartment. But the process seemed to annoy cabdrivers, who wanted more information. Then I hit on another solution. There’s a Holiday Inn just outside the doors of our apartment complex, so I went into the lobby and snatched a couple of business cards showing the hotel name, address and even a tiny map.
Cabdrivers would examine these cards as if they were the Dead Sea Scrolls. Then you could see the light bulb go on. “Chunxiu Lu!” they would say, as if to imply, “Why didn’t you say this all along?”
Eventually, we got to the point when all I needed to say was the street name of “Chunxiu Lu” after saying “Dongzhimen,” and I’d get a nod and a direct (if relatively silent) shot home. Easy. (Keep in mind that Chunxiu Lu is pronounced “twin chu loo.” It helped that I learned to say it before I closely examined the word on the Holiday Inn card, or I never would have had the nerve to say it.)
Then I made some real progress the other day in a cab to Houhai Lake (where I have taken up dragon boating, which is a story for another day). I was sitting up front with a female cabdriver (not that common here) so I could show her the map on my iPad. The iPad has added an interesting aspect to my getting around Beijing. Some cabbies touch the map and then jump back as if they’ve been shocked when the screen reacts. Others look at the iPad with amusement, as if I’ve shown them a rocket ship or a miniature nuclear reactor: interesting, but not necessarily relevant to their lives.
This cabbie kept looking at it, pointing warily and saying stuff, and I kept not knowing what she was saying. It was probably something like: “I don’t want to go that way, but I can get you close. It might take a while.” I find that the best thing to do in cabs is agree with whatever they’re saying. I mean, I certainly don’t have the resources to argue. So I just say, “Dui, dui,” which sounds like “dway, dway,” part of my limited arsenal of words that mean “okay.”