"Nǐ hǎo, wǒ yào qù Huá Shī Dà hòumén."
Translation: "Hi, I want to go to East China Normal University's Back Gate."
It comes naturally by now. I utter the same words almost every time I open the door to one of Shanghai's colorful Volkswagen Santana taxis, and the driver almost always nods and replies, "Hǎo de."
But that isn't always where the conversation ends. In fact, some of the most interesting conversations I've had in China have been with taxi drivers.
It's a bit strange to think that a situation as transitory as a 15- or 20-minute cab ride is even worth mentioning, but the taxi drivers here are both interesting and interested. They see I'm a wàiguórén (foreigner), and questions start pouring out.
They often ask me where I'm from, though sometimes they take wild guesses. A taxi driver once asked me, in Chinese, if I'm French, which took me by surprise. After I told him I'm American and go to school in New York, the conversation segued into my impressions of Shanghai, and then to the city's heavy traffic as I noted the flood of cars and buses surrounding us.
Since I only started studying Chinese almost four months ago in the NYU in Shanghai program, I've found it rewarding to use the Chinese I've learned to make small talk with native speakers. For me, the best opportunities to do so have come during short cab rides, when I have nowhere to rush off to and can just sit and breathe for a little while. When taxi drivers (and many other local Chinese people in general) hear me say something—anything—in Chinese, they seem impressed. They're eager to ask more questions, and I'm eager to answer them (that is, if I understand what they're asking).
But it's not always just simple small talk.
I'd say my most memorable experience conversing with a taxi driver took place when I was in Lanzhou, the capital city of Gansu Province, back in September. Some friends and I shared a cab to the airport, which is located over an hour away from the city center. Obviously, with such a long cab ride, not to mention a fluent Chinese speaker among us, some sort of conversation was more or less inevitable.
Sure, there was small talk at first. But then our banter turned a bit juicier. And by juicier, I mean, of course, political.
"Obama good," the cab driver said in broken English, with an upbeat tone in his voice.
Then: "Xiao [Small] Bush bad."
At this, we nodded and laughed. The sentiment sounded all too familiar, after all.
But he wasn't finished there.
"Nine-one-one…sorry," he said, referring to the events on September 11th.
This man clearly had some knowledge of international affairs, and some pretty strong opinions. Granted, he didn't only speak in broken English; he elaborated on the subjects a bit more in Chinese… and that was when the unavoidable language barrier set in for me.
Still, the taxi driver had his own way of getting my attention and trying to keep me in involved in the conversation. I was sitting next to him, and throughout the entire cab ride, he kept turning to me and saying, "Hello!"
As eager as I was to practice the limited Chinese I knew, he seemed just as eager to practice the bit of English he knew. What's more, he seemed genuinely interested in America—the politics, the people, even the traffic regulations.
When we arrived to the airport, the taxi driver helped us take our bags out of the cab. Just as we were about to head off, he came up to me, said goodbye… and kissed my hand.
And with that, we walked off, waving goodbye, knowing we'd never cross paths again.
I still wish I had gotten his name.
To see more photos by Justyna Zduńczyk, visit her website and her Flickr stream.