Middle Kingdom Adventures: Drive By

Creative Commons photograph by buzrael. Source: Flickr.

Driving in Beijing is an adventure, to say the least. Cars weave in and out of lanes in a haphazardly choreographed dance. Squeezing your car into the fourth slot in a three-car lane is a necessary skill if you want to move above the crawling pace at times. Those most skilled at navigating Beijing traffic are the taxi drivers.

Before I came to Beijing, my parents cautioned me not to speak too much to the driver, as my accent and awkward Chinese is a dead giveaway of my being a foreigner. They were sure that Beijing drivers would take advantage of my non-native status and run up the fare by taking wayward routes. But my concerns about being cheated paled to my panicked realization that people in Beijing drive like they are NASCAR drivers. I’m always in a state of awe, if not scared half to death, when I’m in a taxi here. But yesterday, I managed to completely forget about how stomach-churning driving through Beijing can be. Getting into a taxi to go across the city, I dreaded the long drive ahead.

Imagine my surprise when the driver turned on the radio and the voice of Ryan Seacrest came on. At first, I didn’t even register that I was listening to him count down the Top 40, in Beijing of all places. I knew that a smile broke across my face when Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” came on — an unexpected example of how truly globalized we are nowadays. Having been in China for a week, it was also a welcome reminder of my other home. Seeing me nod along to Train’s “Drive By”, the driver turned down the radio and asked (in Chinese, of course), “Do you like these songs?”

I quickly explained how I wasn’t really Chinese, and yes, I did enjoy Top 40.

“Really? Me too!” His favorites? Rhianna, Beyonce, and Katy Perry. While he doesn’t understand the lyrics, as he put it, “Listening to these songs gives me energy! It makes my whole day better. Didn’t you notice how much faster I drove when that last song was playing?”

We spent the next forty minutes discussing how he was learning English through looking up the lyrics of his favorite songs online. And how he had faithfully watched every single one of Katy Perry’s music videos. He told me stories about how he impressed several British girls in his taxi the other night with a phrase he learned from a song (“You are beautiful”) — and he was subsequently propositioned with marriage.

This was one taxi ride that was not long enough. And for a moment, made me forget that I was just another laowai in China. The memory of weaving in and out of traffic at 100 kilometres an hour, windows down, hot wind blowing in my face, and the skyline of Beijing whizzing past me — to Katy Perry and Maroon Five — will be one of my favorite memories of China this summer.

Yuying Luo ’12 (yuying@post.harvard.edu) is on the Alexander G. Booth ’30 Fellowship this summer in Beijing and Shanghai. She will occasionally blog about her adventures in the Middle Kingdom.