I’m back in Osaka, after two weeks in London, Berlin, Shanghai, and Hefei.
I should probably start with the lovely countryside inn I stayed at outside of Berlin, on the way to Brandenburg–golden fields of ripe grain dotted with white farmhouses, one train ploughing through every hour or two during the day, picturesque graffiti on the boarded up station house. People who stopped their cars to ask an obvious stranger if she needed directions and then managed with gestures when it turned out that the stranger didn’t speak German, though she looked like she ought to have.
No, let’s go instead to Heifei, where I arrived late in the night after 24 hours in three airplanes and four airports.
I visited a friend in Hefei in 1987. I remember tree-lined streets, ringing bicycle bells, and second-hand bookshops next to teahouses with song birds warbling in bamboo cages that dangled from the rafters.
Here is Hefei in 2012. (The building with the coastal mural is a Walmart.)
The very first thing I did in Hefei in 2012 was get myself (or my company, rather) swindled. I knew I would as soon as he came up to me, acting as though he owned me, as I stepped outside the airport doors. This was not a legitimate taxi driver. When he quoted me “100-something” RMB for my ride to the hotel, I knew as the words fell with blasé confidence from his mouth, his eyes averted, that this was probably three times the true rate, and that when we got there, the “something” would become close to another 100.
Why did I get in? Why didn’t I haggle? Why should I be angry at him for, ahem, taking me for a ride, when I knew exactly what both he and I were doing? I suppose I didn’t want to care, because in my world even 200 RMB (about US$30) is not that huge a deal when you’re exhausted and yearning to get to a bed. (And what a lovely bed it turned out to be.)
On his side, I was an easy target–foreigner and woman to boot. I was asking to be ripped off by my mere existence, and he was doing me the favor of helping me fulfill my prescribed destiny. My speaking Chinese only made the fleecing procedure that much easier.
But I’m not bitter…
After about half an hour in the car, it occurred to me that he might have more in mind than relieving me of 20 or 30 bucks. I was there with no functioning phone but a lot of cash, a U.S. passport, Japanese resident ID, and quite a collection of electronics that might be worth a life to someone desperate or callous enough. I began scanning the road signs for any clue that we were going towards my intended destination. What had I been thinking, getting into an unmarked black car in the middle of the night with a young man in a shimmery black shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest and an expression of listless ennui that he must have picked up from gangster movies.
I watched the fat, smiling Miluo Buddha jiggle on his dashboard, beefy thick wooden and gold-painted sutra beads dangling over it from the windshield mirror. He was surely, I told myself, what Chinese people affectionately refer to as “小流氓,” a “little rogue”–annoyingly smooth and cocky, but generally more in the small-scale conning than the murdering business.
Eventually, I was relieved to see the name of the university I’d be visiting. And then, even better, the sign for my hotel.
“That’ll be 200.”
Yep, just as I expected. Though grateful not to be murdered, I still balked.
“Come on, you said 100-something.”
“Okay, okay, I meant I’d give you 200 in receipts. You pay me 150.” He began tearing off 50-RMB receipt slips from his thick stack of them and shoving them at me.
I sighed. I rolled my eyes. If my daughter had been there, she would have risen to the challenge, but I just couldn’t. “Fine,” I said, feeling very foreign. (I found out the next day that 150 was four or five times the true rate of 30 to 35.)
“Here, here, here, have 300 in receipts.”
“I don’t want extra receipts, and I won’t use them.”
“No, don’t be polite, go ahead and take them.”
I felt the utter difference in our vantage points. He thought he was doing me a favor and that I was being polite, so he pushed them on me. In fact, I felt insulted, mortified to even imagine stooping to committing fraud for 10 or 20 dollars.
For him, I suppose, the company is the Man, an endless source of money and repression that must be tricked if one is ever to get ahead.
I looked into the chasm of perspective that gaped between us and suddenly felt immensely depressed to think of people who eked little bits of extra money from their company over and over through the years, imagining it was getting them somewhere or perhaps getting them back what they had been unfairly denied.
I thought, “I am spoiled.”
Then I thought, “I didn’t do that even when I had a baby and a secretary’s salary in a poorly funded startup and could barely make rent month to month.”
Then I thought, “But I always had family who wouldn’t have let us starve or freeze, if it came to that.”
Then I thought, “Sigh. I’m really ready for that spoiled-businesswoman’s bed.”
No matter what conversations I have with myself in the privacy of my own mind, I most certainly won’t be caught off-guard a second time when I return to Hefei. It’s clearly marked, government-run, metered taxis for me from here on out.
Here’s the central garden in the lovely campus I visited the next day, driven there by a kind and chatty taxi driver who charged just what the meter said.