In Chengdu there is an incredible amount of traffic. Perhaps the traffic here
cannot compare to larger cities, but at rush hour in this compact city is busy indeed. The streets
are always teeming with private cars, Chengdu buses, trucks, bicycles, pedestrians, taxis and even
bicycle rickshaws. I was living in China for the first time in Nanjing when the city outlawed such
vehicles. Government officials felt that with the increasing number of private cars taking to the
streets these small, light vehicles were clogging traffic unnecessarily, and were a dangerous
component to the much faster pace of oil fueled traffic. However, after being in Chengdu for a few
short hours, I realized that no such law had been enacted out west. Perhaps this is because Chengdu
is a smaller, more compact city, therefore such a law is unnecessary; though I think it may also be
related to disproportionate number of residents to taxis.
During rush hours it is nearly impossible to find a free taxi in any kind of short order. One may stand on a busy street corner for upwards of 20 or 30 minutes before lightning strikes. Likewise, the public buses are so stuffed with people they recall images of a bloated blue whale floating listlessly just moments after gorging himself on tons of krill.
My work place is located in close proximity to Chengdu’s city center, and often when departing in the evening I take advantage of its location to do a bit of grocery shopping. When carrying a few armloads of shopping, cycling or walking the 20 minutes home becomes less appealing indeed. However, because of poor timing, it is nearly impossible to find an empty cab anywhere within the vicinity of Chengdu’s most popular shopping street, 春熙路. Instead of waiting, or choosing to body-check other competing residents out of the way (something I have already seen far too often), I opt for a ride in a bicycle rickshaw instead.
The rickshaws are less popular then their cab cousins partially because their range is much more limited (a cyclist can’t transport you across the entire city), and because they are slower. Curiously, the rickshaws’ quoted prices are often higher than the cab fares. However, despite these disadvantages, rolling through the crowded streets in the shaded carriage of a bicycle rickshaw with a breeze flowing through your hair can be much more enjoyable than riding in the back of a sticky, under-airconditioned, oil burning cab. Moreover, riding in a bicycle rickshaw, even one which employs the use of an electric bicycle, is far more environmentally conscious than riding in a car or bus.
Last week, after doing my grocery shopping downtown, I decided to return home via rickshaw. There were a few cycle cabbies waiting for fares in 想凭 (Champagne) Square, so after bargaining for the most competitive price, I climbed into the carriage, settled my plastic grocery bags on the metal floor around my feet, and we were off.
The cabbie who I had chosen, or, who had perhaps chosen me, was quite talkative. Our conversation had to be carried out almost entirely in shouts: as she pedaled the bicycle she faced forward, yelling her questions out into traffic. Answering the back of her head I focused on her reddish brown hair, which was pulled into a high, swaying pony-tail. With her occasional over-the-shoulder glances I could see many light freckles splashed over her round, cream colored face. When she flashed me a smile, I noticed one of her top teeth was missing.
She asked me all the standard questions of origin and intention, curious perhaps about where I had been and where I was going. As we trundled through the crowded streets we became entangled in a tiny traffic jam with several other bicycle rickshaws. There were riders in the back of the other two cabs as well, all women. However, the two other cabbies were men. Upon seeing me they both exclaimed the usual, “老外!” in surprise as their passengers giggled awkwardly.
As we were momentarily stopped, my driver had turned on her bicycle seat and was beaming at me, pleased to be at the center of attention. The two other cabbies began to question her immediately, not wanting to waste a moment of short time. They repeated the same questions she had already put to me, and as she listened to them her smile faded and her expression turned serious. Before she had the chance to field even one, they alighted on the single most important one: “Can she speak Chinese?”
The other cabbie asked my driver this while all the time regarding me, perhaps looking for a sign of recognition or understanding on my face. Before either of us could answer his query he did so himself: “No, she can’t.” His answer was as abrupt as his question and sounded as final.
My cabbie’s voice rang out in my defense, “Of course she can! She speaks Chinese very well!”
As all the members of our small audience heard this they turned from her to me, and I could feel the heat of their combined gaze. Slightly embarrassed by the situation, because of my inability to converse fluently in Chinese, and disliking my place as the center of attention, I smiled quickly and dropped my gaze. My cabbie remained totally undaunted. I listened as she explained to the tiny gathering how I was a foreign teacher (she actually referred to me as a professor, a term and position that command great respect here in China), that I came from America and that I loved living in Chengdu. Glancing up at her occasionally, I could see she was once again smiling at me, and her voice was warm with excitement and even pride.
She finished delivering her few succinct statements as the traffic jam eroded, and we began to move once again. By this time she had converted all but the most stubborn of her listeners, and the other cabbies and their passengers smiled and waved to me as they said goodbye. She took me the rest of the way home, chatting happily and easily about everything from the weather to the quality of life in the U.S. Reaching my gate, I hopped out of the carriage, gathered my grocery bags and bid her “慢走.”
Perhaps the most arresting part of this experience is that it is not a singular one. Many is the time in China when I have encountered a person, such as this cheerful woman, who after having just made my acquaintance will speedily become my staunch defender. Often such an occurrence has happened with someone with whom I have come into contact with only briefly, or someone who I see occasionally, like the man who cuts my hair, or the woman who owns the convenience store across the street from my apartment complex. Though I am not entirely sure what prompts such acts of camaraderie, I feel that is part of general mood of hospitality which one encounters here in China. Whatever the reason, such intimate defense from one’s acquaintances can quickly warm even the coldest of hearts.
I 'm Julia Maher, and I have been living off and on in China since the late summer of 2001. I have spent my time here both studying Chinese and teaching English, sometimes simultaneously, and others not. Most of my time has been spent living in Jiangsu province, but I have just recently moved to Chengdu hoping to experience life out west.