I have mentioned Driver Shi before. He is my favourite driver – reliable and helpful and intelligent, he makes my life so much easier! My friends have started to get to know him, too – he now knows several of them by name (and home address!) He’s my go-to guy all the time. When a friend got married recently and we needed ice, he went and bought ice and brought it over (along with guests he was picking up). During the recent youth camps he picked up food and drove it out to us several times, even waiting and taking the warming bags back to the restaurant afterward.
Last week Driver Shi told me some stories about his family. He doesn’t talk much about himself so it was quite a treat to sit and listen to him. It started because he was not able to pick me up one night – he needed to be at the airport to pick up his son. Actually, in the end he decided it was on the way anyway, so he and his wife picked me up and took me where I was going on their way to the airport. I already knew his son was in his twenties and worked at terminal 3 of Beijing airport. What I didn’t know was that he works for a Russian airline and has travelled to 8 or 9 countries with them. Mr Shi’s son was returning from a four-day trip to Suzhou and Nanjing with some of his friends, and Mr Shi was picking him up to make sure he made it home in time for a family dinner.
The family dinner was a farewell for his paternal grandfather’s younger brother (although Mr Shi just calls him yeye – grandfather); he was about to return to Taiwan after a month in Beijing visiting family. Yeye was a teenage soldier in the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) army when they were fighting for control of China in the late 40s. He was working for someone high up who took him with them to Taiwan when the Kuomintang left the mainland. Yeye has lived in Taiwan ever since, remaining a soldier in the army until he retired. He is now 83 years old, and this was to be his last trip to the mainland to visit family. Or, as Mr Shi put it, his last time to “come home”.
Mr Shi says his family get together a few times a year, which is pretty good. His older brother owns a restaurant so they normally just meet there. For this dinner, however, Mr Shi’s son was bringing his girlfriend. Since they aren’t engaged yet, apparently it wasn’t considered proper for her to join a big family event like this in public so there was “no choice” but to have the dinner at home. I haven’t heard of that kind of distinction being made before, so I’d be interested to know if it’s a common thing.
Talking about his older brother’s restaurant, Mr Shi casually dropped in the news that he himself used to own and run a restaurant! While I can’t quite picture Mr Shi in a kitchen, I can easily picture him as the brains of the operation. His restaurant served homestyle Chinese food, like many restaurants around Beijing, in a residential neighbourhood. Unfortunately, the neighbourhood was torn down – as often happens in China. Everyone was given notice to move out, but Mr Shi couldn’t find a good place to re-open his restaurant and never went back to it. By then he’d already started driving (he was doing three jobs for a while there) so started to make that his main occupation. He’s been working as a driver for the past 5 years (including some overlap with his restauranting days) and I get the impression it’s been a good change of pace for him, almost like pre-retirement. He sets his own hours (nothing before breakfast or after dinner) and to a large degree can set his own pace.