The Federal Communications Commission requires that only identification calls between dispatchers and taxicab drivers be in English. An article Sunday incorrectly described this regulation.
If learning about faraway lands is your hobby, there's a quick way to get a lesson in Washington: Take a taxi.
Chances are good your driver will hail from Korea, Afghanistan, Iran, Ghana, Nigeria, Ethiopia or one of any number of other distant places. Like domestic service and mom-and-pop stores, hacking has gone foreign, with students, refugees and even former diplomats turning to it for income--and turning many a Washington taxi ride into a pleasant or exasperating international encounter.
"My relatives and friends told me that the best job you can do in the United States of America is drive a cab," said a 49-year-old former Afghan farmer who passed his hacker's test in Alexandria recently. "I haven't enough money to have my own business . . . It's not a question for me if I like or not like the job. I want to make some money."
With the new immigrants have come some happily curious experiences: There is a former Afghan diplomat who calls his fares "my honorable passengers" and a cabbie born in Thailand who refused to charge his rider upon discovering they had once met briefly overseas.
The dramatic influx of foreign-born drivers also has brought mounting complaints from riders. Stories abound about foreign cabbies who overcharge, don't understand English, drive erratically, refuse to take fares where they want to go or don't know their way around town. (One immigrant up for a hearing before the District's Hackers' Appeals Board pleaded ignorance when asked the zone containing 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.)
"We're having a bit of a problem with the new foreign-born cabdrivers in compliance," said Capt. James G. Brunzos, head of the District police's five-man hacking enforcement team. "Newer cabdrivers tend to comply a lot less than the long-time cabdrivers."
American cabdrivers also gripe about alleged abuses by foreign drivers. "Any driver--foreigner or otherwise--who pretends not to know how to go to certain locations because he doesn't want to go, gives all of us a bad name," said William Wright, head of the Taxicab Industry Group, a coalition of the District's more than 60 taxicab companies. "Right now there seems to be a higher percentage of foreign taxi drivers doing it than Americans."
Yet because the pay is good and hacker tests in the various jurisdictions are relatively easy and may be taken again and again, foreign cab drivers are probably here to stay.
At least 50 percent of the licensed cabbies in Alexandria and Arlington and Montgomery counties are new immigrants, officials said. Washington officials declined to estimate what percent of the city's 9,300 licensed drivers are foreign, though regular cab riders say the number is substantial.
For many immigrants, particularly those without money, taxi driving is quick cash. That is why 53-year-old Abdul Abawi, a self-described expert in forensic science who said he was former chief of police in Afghanistan's capital of Kabul, turned to hacking. "We started a new life in a new country with empty hands and five people," said Abawi, who has driven a cab 12 hours a day, seven days a week for three years. "I'm not a professional cabdriver. Hacking was fun for some time and now I miss my old job."
Emmanuel, a 29-year-old University of District of Columbia student from Cameroon, said driving a taxi allows him to pay his $300 monthly rent and $800-a-semester tuition "without suffering." Foreign-born cabdrivers also say they hack because their poor fluency in English keeps them from other jobs. "Our language is bad . . . ," said a 40-year-old Iranian. "This is the only thing I can do with this language."
Indeed, cabdrivers' language difficulties have created a cottage industry--cab companies such as White Top Cab in Alexandria, Golden Cab in Prince George's County and VIP Cab in the District all have foreign-born owners and cater to foreign-born drivers. Federal regulations prevent Il Hwan Kim, office manager for the Korean-owned Columbus Cab in Alexandria, from speaking Korean over the dispatch radio to his 17 Korean drivers, but he can "repeat many times until they understand."
Perhaps the loudest complaints about foreign drivers come from riders and dispatchers at Washington National Airport, where foreigners account for about three-quarters of the drivers. Dispatchers accuse them of discourtesy, overcharging, soliciting for fares out of turn, trying to get more than one fare and dodging the line. "They just don't pay no attention to that poor dispatcher," said one airport worker.
Foreign drivers, on the other hand, say they are harassed by airport police. "The police they are really giving us a hard time," contended Ethiopian cabbie Minassie Tadesse. "For a minor mistake they give a $25 ticket, they are really harassing us, the way they speak to us."
One of the most common complaints about foreign drivers is that they often refuse to take passengers to the outer reaches of Northeast and Southeast Washington, because it isn't regarded as a profitable run.
Tadesse said foreign hackers are often afraid to go to those neighborhoods. He recalled the night a National Airport dispatcher gave him two passengers already refused by "about 10 other drivers." The men, who had no luggage, gave an address in "the very far end of Northeast" Washington and then lit up some hashish. "I was really in tension . . ." Tadesse said. "I was almost in a panic."
Cultural differences lead to some of the gripes about foreign drivers. "They come from cultures of bartering in which all your life you've been hustling," said a National Airport dispatcher. "They come to the airport and they naturally want to make a pitch for the best fare. They want to get out. They want to hear where the fares are going to. They want to barter for the fares. We cannot do that here."
Getting the hang of American traffic habits also seems hard for some foreigners. At home, some were used to sparse traffic interspersed with cows, oxen, donkeys and bicycles. Others recall homeland traffic so frenetic--with traffic regulations and traffic police (if they exist) blithely ignored--that drivers developed a mindset akin to a boot camp trainee on an obstacle course.
"If you get in with one of the Nigerians who drives like they do back in Nigeria, it's like taking your life in your hands," said one State Department employe. "I'm so glad to get in with some nice old American gentleman who just plods along."
Of course, cultural differences cut two ways, with foreign drivers noting some odd American quirks. "Normally, most people do ask you about the weather," said Mohammed H. Alasso, a 29-year-old Ethiopian driver who is studying at Prince George's Community College. "They ask you what the weather is going to be like. They think drivers know." And some people seem to think English is only English if Americans speak it.
"Sometimes at National Airport you hear people saying, 'I want a taxi driver who speaks English.' " said Alasso. "And I'm thinking, 'But we are speaking English.' It gives me a sort of surprise."
Said Afghan cabdriver Abawi, "What I found out about American people is that when they go home they have only one way, and if you take the shortest way and it isn't their way they get upset."
But Abawi said most fares are gracious. "Generally the people are really nice, they are delightful," he said.