How I Love “Them Taxi Drivers!” Anecdotes from years past in many cities
As the year 2011 draws to a close—and how quick it was!—and 2012 is about to begin, I thought I’d zoom out of the usual realm of “issues concerning our Nikkei/ijusha community” and take a ground-level look at some places and peoples around the globe in terms of one common occupation— “them taxi drivers” (excuse the grammar but it kind of fits the way I feel). Stretching over a period of nearly 50 years, my conversations with cabbies have taught me a lot about different cultures and human nature.
In this age of the internet, we can electronically and instantaneously check out peoples, places and what’s happening around the globe with ease using English, the informal international language. But when we physically visit a place for the first time (the Canadian East Coast, the US, Japan, Mexican or Caribbean resorts, wherever) the first real contact/conversation we have with the locals is often the taxi driver who takes you to our hotel.
If you’re the curious type, you’ll probably try to get some up-to-date info on what’s happening in town—where to visit or shop and so on. That’s why you often see a quote or two from a “local cabby” in stories by travel and other features writers. At the same time, the driver’s occupational habit will have him sizing you up, trying to guess which country you’re from, what line of business you’re in, whether you’ve got money, etc etc. Below are some of my memorable encounters.
Tokyo Whether arriving from Singapore (1981-1997) or from Vancouver (1997 to present), I’ve always made it a point to chit chat with the first cabbie I encounter, just to get a feel of how things are in my home town of yore. There’s a good chance he will be listening to a baseball game or sumo on his radio, which is also a good conversation opener, like “What’s the matter with the Giants this season?”
And sometime during my stay, a cabbie will invariably remark: “You speak Japanese very well.” I’ve been hearing that from Tokyo cabbies ever since I started using taxis occasionally in my late teens when I began teaching English at a school three-days a week. If you’re a hapa or even a 1/4-something, taxi drivers will inevitably notice and assume you’re a foreigner speaking Japanese. I know I should be used to being reminded I don’t look “quite Japanese” after so many years, but somehow it’s still a jarring experience. Look at it this way: in big cities of North America or Europe, cabbies don’t even care what you look like or what kind of accent you speak with (as long as you pay, of course).
Moscow (1965) With the money I earned as interpreter during the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, I made a journey to Helsinki across the then Soviet Union by rail and air, stopping off in Moscow for a couple of days’ stay. I still remember my anticipation as the rickety old cab headed toward the capital from a suburban airport on a nearly deserted highway late at night. Feeling excited as I discerned the lights of Moscow up ahead, I wanted to hear Russian melodies, so I pointed to the car radio and said to the driver two words I thought he would understood: “Radio (pronounced rah-dio), musik (like in German).” He replied: “Rahdio, kaput!” Busted car radios must have been common in those days of shabby consumer goods that were the norm of the communist economy.
London Nothing to be proud of, but nevertheless a memorable episode with a taxi driver one night in early summer, 1967, shortly after my news agency colleagues had given me a traditional send-off at a Fleet Street pub below our office on the occasion of my posting to our Rome bureau. The “tradition” was that I somehow had to drink every pint of ale bought for me by my many colleagues, who took turns coming down to the pub during their dinner breaks. I don’t remember how many I had, but on the way back to my Earl’s Court flat in a taxi, I reached a point where I knew I had to upchuck. I remember clearly it was on a mall approaching Buckingham Palace, which I could make out in the distance, but what I also recall clearly is the lightening speed with which the cabbie stopped, dashed around the taxi and opened my door so that I could so I could sort of lurch out to the sidewalk. Britain is a country where traditions die hard. I’m not sure if that of ale-guzzling journalists is still alive and well. It probably is.
Singapore When I got there in July of 1981 to join a new English-language daily, Singapore was well on her way toward joining the ranks of the world’s industrialized nations as one of Asia’s “four tigers,” i.e. rapidly growing economies, along with Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. As it was very expensive to own a car, I, like many others relied on the economical taxis to get around the hot, tropical island. One night when I arrived home in a cab, I tried to tip the driver a couple of dollars. Remember this is Southeast Asia where the predominant cultures are all about making money. But not this driver. “No sir, I don’t accept tips because I’m Singaporean!” he declared. I felt the esprit of the then newly-emerging young nation. Are there still such cabbies in Singapore? Not so sure.
The Singapore cabbie whom I can’t forget is the one who tried to give a “bit of advice “ to a colleague of mine, a seasoned old local journalist, with whom I happened to share a cab part of the way back to our office. The colleague laughingly told me later at the office what the cabbie had said. “I see that the guy you were with is a half-breed, and let me tell you, half-breed people are always cunning and scheming so you’d better be careful.” Is what he said related to the fact that the Japanese military government during the WWII years, when it renamed the occupied colony Shonanto, had different policies toward Singapore’s different races? Chinese were treated harshly, Malays not so harshly, the Indians encouraged to join the pro-Japanese Indian nationalist movements, and so on. Some Eurasians (mixed-race) are said to have cooperated with and profited from the Japanese. Many things that happened during the Shonanto years are still taboo subjects in Singapore today.
Rome Arriving for a family vacation back in the summer of 2003, the taxi driver who took us from the airport to our downtown hotel had us gripping our arm rests in sheer terror. All the way via a suburban highway and into the cobble-stoned city streets, he practically flew at around 70 k.p.h., or as fast as he could – most of the time his front bumper only about four or five meters behind the car in front. Italians do make good racecar drivers, they say, but many Roman taxi drivers just drive that way by temperament. Having lived there back in the 60s, it took me some time to recall that. Until then, it sure was scary.
Lecce (ancient city located at the “heel“ of boot-shaped Italy): Later during that trip, a taxi driver there bragged to us that “We were a civilized Greek city long before Rome was established.” I checked and according to legend, a Greek city called Sybar already existed there at the time of the Trojan War (around 12th century BC.)
New York During a short stay there with my wife around December of 1994 we took a cab one day and I noticed that the driver named Wong was listening to reggae music. I looked at him and saw he had African complexion and Chinese eyes! Like the three blind assassins who appear at the beginning of Thunderball in Ian Fleming’s classic James Bond series. Having read Thunderball back in the 60s, I knew about them. Now I was seeing one for the first time. He was a cool brother.
It was also during that stay that the driver of a taxi we took back to our hotel one night kept nodding off, probably high on something. I remember him heading toward Central Park, seemingly away from our hotel and me saying “Why are you going that way?” I do remember repeatedly shouting close to his ear, ”Do you want to stop for a coffee or something?” But I don’t remember exactly how we eventually got him to take us to our hotel.
Montreal It happened to be at the time of the famous Northeast blackout of 2003 that the four of us were visiting Quebec. One day, we took a bus from Quebec City back to Montreal, and took a cab from the bus terminal to our hotel. I started chatting with the driver, a member of the large Haitian community there, about the blackout hitting parts of Northeastern and Midwestern US and Ontario – but not Quebec which was on a different power grid. Interrupting me, he said: “You know why we don’t have a black-out? Because we have a lot of LOVE here!” Montreal is a first-class city with a heart.
Vancouver About three years ago when I flew back to Vancouver International from Tokyo, the driver of the taxi I took happened to be a Sikh, many of them being in that occupation as you know. As soon as he found out I was Japanese, he announced: “India beat Japan in (field) hockey yesterday!” Having had Sikh airline executives and Sikh advertising agency managers among my clients back in Singapore, I was sort of familiar with how they show their racial pride from time to time. Certainly a far cry from Japanese cabbies who routinely address you as “Okyakusan,” or literally “honourable customer.” But as the old Japanese saying goes, “tokoro kawareba hito kawaru (loosely, “Different places, different folks”). India can beat Japan any time they like . . . I thought as I leaned back in my comfortable seat.
We have in and around Vancouver people from practically all over the world who bring with them their cuisines and other aspects of their culture. Its one of the main reasons I like this town. Thanks for reading my articles this year. Do have a Merry Christmas and an early “Akemashite omedetoo gozaimasu” to you all.