To and from Hongqiao: Dickensian details of daily Chinese life

Sunday, November 25, 10:30 am: Taxi from downtown Shanghai to Hongqiao airport, the older, closer-in airport that handles most domestic flights. (Versus the newer, fancier, more distant Pudong Airport. Pudong is the equivalent to Dulles, O'Hare, or JFK; Hongqiao is National, Midway, or LaGuardia.) Halfway through the 30-minute trip, on the freeway portion of the drive, I notice that the car is drifting from side to side across lanes as it travels. Nothing so unusual about that. But this feels somehow different - and I look at the rearview mirror and see that the driver has fallen asleep.

I had heard about the rigors of drivers who work 24-hour shifts in Shanghai taxicabs. We must have encountered this driver, a pleasant-looking middle aged woman, at the end of the cycle. I'd also heard from an American friend who noticed that her driver had completely dozed off -- fortunately when the car was stopped, and didn't start moving when the rest of the traffic did. But I hadn't witnessed it first hand myself.

Everything about the behavior of the driver would be instantly recognizable to anybody who has been through deep, irresistible fatigue. Her head kept falling down onto her chest. Her eyes would close -- and every 40 or 50 seconds she would jolt herself awake. Meanwhile the car is essentially sailing from one lane to another across a three lane road, with other cars blaring their horns. (Again, nothing unusual in that, so she wouldn't necessarily have noticed.) My wife and I started talking very loudly to each other. My wife started asking questions of the driver in Chinese, which would snap her to attention for a minute or so. We were very grateful to get to the airport -- and hoped the driver made it to her destination too. Another glimpse at the Dickensian realities of Chinese working life.

Wednesday, November 28, 4:30 pm: Taxi from Hongqiao airport back to downtown Shanghai. Something is screwy with the taxi system at Hongqiao. Taxis in the city are generally available, cheap, and (it seems) honest. They have meters, which print out vast detailed receipts and can also accept electronic payment via Shanghai transit cards. But at Hongqiao, there is usually a line of 600 to 800 passengers waiting for taxis, which I can explain only as part of some deal to promote the business of gypsy taxi drivers who solicit business among depressed passengers at the end of the queue.

This time, the queue was relatively short, and within ten minutes my wife and I were at the front. The official, uniformed dispatcher waved us away from the normal taxis everyone else was boarding and toward one lone taxi 30 yards away. It was raining, so we weren't eager to slog over there, but what the hell. We were the only foreigners in the line, which in retrospect was the crucial fact.

On the trip in, it became obvious that there was something wrong with the taxi. The driver was friendly enough and better at road-skills than most, but his meter had clearly been rigged. The trip out to Hongqiao, with the sleeping driver, had cost 43 kuai (just under $6). At the end of the trip back, covering exactly the same route, the meter showed 149 kuai, three and a half times as much.

We paid the driver, and got all our bags out of the car, and got a receipt -- a fake hand -written one, not the ostentatiously formal receipt all other taxis produce. Then my wife began interrorgating the driver, in Chinese, about why this trip cost nearly 150 kuai when it usually was no more than 50. An unhappy look came over his face, and instead of what we had expected -- a big shouting match -- he stuffed the extra 100 kuai note back in her hand and drove off in a rush.

Moral: the official, uniformed, airport-licensed dispatcher was clearly involved in a kickback scheme with the taxi driver, to steer unsuspecting foreigners his way. We have come to trust the efficiency and honesty of Shanghai's transportation system in general, including its taxis. I will assume for now that this is an exception illustrating the rule -- but will sooner or later talk about the way, over time, an expectation of being cheated or pushed aside changes people's behavior for the worse, including ours.