This isn’t a regular update email. Instead, it’s some China storytelling! I was reminded recently that one of the most popular updates I ever sent out was the “Water Stories” of last summer (July 2009). So I’ve been on the look out for some stories to tell you – so here goes!
Beijing has hit a cold patch the past few days. Last night’s overnight minimum was -14 Celcius; yesterday’s daytime maximum was -4! The wind was bitter this afternoon. I was outside a fair bit today, and observed the effect of the cold on this little part of the city. While last week I was still happily wearing an autumn coat some of the time (despite below zero temps) the last few days I wouldn’t walk 5 metres from cafe to car in the middle of the day without my calf-length down-filled coat zipped up to my neck!
Everything is frozen. All water – including small spills, mud puddles, and gobs of phlegm on the footpath – are solid. Thin patches crunch underfoot; anything more solid can be slippery. My hair was damp when I went out this afternoon (the power was off in our building so no hairdryer!) and in the 10-15 minutes I was outside my bobbed ponytail under my hat was crunchy! It was much colder then than when I went home at 9:30pm, even thought the internet tells me than an hour later at 10:30pm it was -3 (windchill -11), on the way to a low of -12. It definitely felt colder than that in the wind this afternoon!
It’s supposed to start warming up soon. Friday’s forecast daytime maximum is above freezing, and overnight minimums from tomorrow should be no lower than -8. I love that I’m calling weather at the bottom end of Canberra’s cold winter “warming up”. It’s really clear to me this winter that I’ve adjusted a lot to the weather here since my arrival nearly 7 years ago.
In other “cold” news, I’m finally starting to feeling almost back to normal following a cold I came down with in the first week of November (it hung around so long I think I probably caught a second cold before getting over the first). I’m still coughing in the mornings and don’t have all of my high register, but my singing is almost back to normal and I have more energy than I have since Autumn.
I find it helpful to have a few private driver (or “black cabs”) available to call upon. After 2+ years in Langfang I had become accustomed to a very high standard in my black cabs, so I’ve been pretty picky about choosing drivers I trust now that I’m back in Beijing. I had several false starts – finding a driver who seemed reasonable, only to discover he was a terrible driver, or that I felt he was not trustworthy for some reason. One time, I encountered the same driver twice, before calling him to pick me up the next morning. He agreed and we set a time and place. He didn’t show up, and didn’t answer my calls or texts, so I went out and found a regular cab. I got a text from him three hours later, apologising for not showing up. He said he was out drinking the night before and didn’t wake up, but he’d like to take me out to dinner that night. I haven’t called him to drive me since.
There are several advantages to using regular drivers (after finding the right one). First, they get to know my regular destinations, so I don’t have to direct them every time, and have an agreed upon price that stays the same. Most will also come to a regular location to pick me up if I ask. Second, I can book them to arrive at my exact location at a specific time – so I’m not out in the cold looking for a cab for ages. Third, we build relationship over time – so it’s easier to ask them to go out of their way to help me, whether by having them wait for me to run a quick errand along the way, or even help carry things into the house for me. Fourth, we get to know each other, so instead of having the exact same conversation every cab ride, we build on previous conversations.
As a white girl who speaks Chinese with a very good accent and a vocabulary that is sufficient for general conversation, I frequently have the same conversation with drivers:
Driver: Australia is a beautiful country!
I could keep going, but you get the idea. I have had this conversation, every line of it (if in slightly different orders) probably a hundred times in the past two years or so. Along with asking my age and why am I not married yet “you should get married, I had a kid by your age, you should find a nice Chinese boy…” – a conversation I’ve had at least as many times. So I really enjoy the variety of conversation I have with the black cab drivers I patronise. Just today a black cab driver tried to explain and help me understand a regular radio feature here – the narrated story. The radio regularly plays recordings of a person narrating stories from ancient Chinese history (today’s revolved around a pair of cousins who wanted to marry the same man). It’s like a radio play, with a single person narrating rather than separate parts. It was fun (although hard work for me trying to keep up!) and when it was done, the driver told me two of his favourite Chinese history stories (I found it in English in a few places – this one most closely resembles my driver’s telling of it).
In these conversations over time I also get to know more of the drivers’ personal stories. I’d like to introduce you to two drivers I’ve met recently.
Mr Wan is my storyteller :) He is proud of the fact that in the 5 years he’s been driving in Beijing, he has never received a traffic ticket; he is always careful to behave when the cameras are around. He puts CDs on his number plate when driving in the city on his banned day, and speeds liberally when on a section of expressway with no speed cameras, though. He says that a lot of the Korean women he drives around are scared of the way he drives; he enjoys my comparative boldness! Mr Wan is from a small town in the northwest of China (which is obvious from his accent). He is married and has two sons; they are 8 years and 3 months, respectively. The three of them, and his parents, all live in his home town. He sees them once or twice a year when he drives the 980km home.
Mr Fu is in his mid-forties. He drives for a American businessman and his Russian wife, but it’s not a full-time position, and he takes other jobs when they don’t require his services. He works mostly for families who live in Yosemite, a complex of really nice houses in Shunyi. For 18 years he worked construction, even working on houses in Yosemite itself. Eventually he decided that he would rather work for himself; there is less stability, perhaps, but more freedom. He really enjoys being his own boss, and having control over his own time. His manner reminds me of a concierge in a fancy hotel – respectful but very refined. The only thing I see in him pointing to two decades of manual labour is his weathered skin.
I hope you’ve enjoyed these stories! I will try to keep an eye out for stories that will interest and amuse you, my faithful and fun mailing list :)