The cabbie I met today did in fact start speaking, but only after I awkwardly put out a few stupid comments for him to roll with. Suddenly when I told him it would be faster to take another route to the one he was taking, he opened up. We argued about whose way made more sense and then I informed him that I know the route because I bike it everyday to and from work. “Ah! You ride a bicycle! To save the environment, right?” he exclaimed. Sort of, I guess, although the real reason is that it’s faster and cheaper than anything else. I told him this. He seemed immensely pleased. So was I, and I tried another conversation starter.
Soon he was telling me about how frustrating it was to deal with the foreign tourists who are here for the Olympics and can’t communicate where they want to go. “They’re troublesome sometimes,” he told me. Normally tourists show him a business card or a text message with the address of their destination in Chinese characters, but there are some days when he has to ask a Chinese bystander on the street to translate. He also told me that he loves to converse with foreigners. I have a hard time imagining how he does so given that he barely uttered a work to me initially.
I arrived home, still wondering why this cabbie also was so hesitant to engage in conversation. What was wrong with the entire cabbie population of Beijing!? And then I read something. The real reason for suddenly silent cab drivers is this - according to Radio Free Asia, thousands of Beijing cabs have been fitted video cameras, microphones, and other surveillance devices so that an army of people, and the government, can keep close tabs on Beijing’s guests. Go figure.