In which I finally hire a car and driver

After seven years of taking taxis in Beijing I finally crossed the Rubicon of bourgeois colonialism and hired a car and driver. I now have two full time domestic employees, which seems somehow wrong. In the back of my mind lurks the ghost of the former graduate student adding up the cost of groceries as he shops so as not to exceed the cash in his wallet. What am I doing with domestic help? I’d hardly describe us as rich, but comfortably middle class by western standards goes a long way in Beijing. All the way to a car and driver, it turns out.

I’d resisted this maneuver for some time. For one thing, even in Beijing it’s rather a lot of money. Money that could significantly increase the floor space of our apartment if I wanted. Or go some ways toward covering an outrageous international school tuition bill. Or buy a lot of geeky toys. Or earn .00001% annual interest in a Chinese bank account. So why? Why burn thousands of RMB every month?

It wuz the taxis what done it.

I’ve taken a lot of taxis since arriving  in Beijing. But for the past year, since joining Motorola, my usage has skyrocketed thanks to a twice-daily 40 minute commute. I’ve tried public transportation twice. That turns the commute into a 90 minute odyssey that leaves me looking and feeling like a wino who’s been gang-rolled by a college football team after a 36 hour Ripple bender.

I always viewed taxis as a kind of proxy for the overall state of wherever they are from. In Beijing the taxis are functional, but rough around the edges, kind of like the city itself. Every country’s taxis have their idiosyncrasies, but you can glean some insight from the overall level of comfort, city knowledge, cleanliness and service. To some degree you get what you pay for. London and Tokyo have excellent taxis, but you could cover your monthly mortgage with an airport fare in either town. On the other hand, Singapore taxis are also excellent and remain a relative bargain, especially considering how expensive everything else in Singapore seems to be getting. In Kuala Lumpur bring patience and negotiating skills.

So here is my list of the positive attributes of Beijing taxis:

  • They’re cheap
  • They’re metered

This is nothing to dismiss. Cheap and metered is a good thing, as anyone who’s had to navigate unmetered taxis knows. That’s one reason why I’ve stuck with taxis so long, and used them for my commute.

However, returning to the “you get what you pay for” theorem, here are the problems:

After a wholesale fleet upgrade that started about five years ago, the state of the art among Beijing taxis is still a Hyundai Elantra with a rear-seat pitch designed for Munchkins. As a result, the magazine rack that hangs behind the shotgun sear etches a groove in my knees. My shoes get tangled up in the seat undercarriage and look like they’ve been scoured with Brillo pads and broken glass. I can’t keep a shine longer than 24 hours. First thing I now do in any taxi is tilt the shotgun seat forward a few notches. The second thing I do is turn off the annoying seat-back advertising screen. Thank god you can turn them off, or I’d have to carry a roll of opaque tape with me.

The Elantras are a stupendous upgrade from the miserable Xialis that represented the great bulk of Beijing taxis when I arrived. But that is the most subterranean of low bars. The Xialis were  only “cars” in the loosest sense of the word in that they had wheels and some variety of barely-internal combustion. Xialis vented their exhaust directly into the back seat. Xiali seatbelts used to leave black stripes on my white shirts. As small as the Elantras are, I had to dislocate my own hips to sit in the back seat of a Xiali, and risk electrocution from the wires and fuses dangling from the dashboard to sit in the front. If you slammed the door of a Xiali you might fly out the far side of the car. So the current cars are better, but not great.

This brings us to the other essential component: the drivers. There are some great taxi drivers in Beijing. But getting one has become sort of miraculous, like a surprise business class upgrade on a long-haul flight. And the good ones throw into sharp relief the dire service provided by so many drivers.

Beijing taxi drivers listen to the radio. Loud. Often to the gravelly-voiced storyteller who makes storm sounds with his mouth. When the front speakers are blown, back seat passengers get woofer-Sensurround storytelling.  Asking the driver to turn down the radio is just one of many requests that can land you in a purgatory of passive-aggressive swerving, brake-jamming and teeth-sucking. Other sins include: Not going far enough; going anywhere when traffic is bad, which is always; suggesting a route that the driver is unaccustomed to; suggesting the diver focus on driving rather than texting or having a roaring argument with someone on the phone; requesting a destination the driver doesn’t know (surprisingly frequent); asking for some change in the climate arrangements; using a large bill; or rumpling the seat covers.

What is with the damned seat covers? Taxis the world over use vinyl seat covers because, Einstein, they’re durable and easy to clean. But in Beijing they use white fabric seat covers and then squint at you when you bring a three year old into the taxi because he might scuff the upholstery. Dude, three year olds will scuff the upholstery. That’s what they do. Have you seen my furniture?

I understand why the drivers get upset about the upholstery. Apparently the taxi companies fine them if the upholstery is dirty. But why don’t the taxi companies fine them for driving like maniacs? Or hugging the right lane so they crawl through on-ramp traffic? Or stopping to take leaks while they’re carrying fares? (Twice, recently.) Or waving off foreigners for locals? Or eating raw cloves of garlic? Or smoking in their taxis? Or filling up the trunk with miscellaneous crap so your luggage won’t fit? Why is it wrong to scuff the upholstery but OK for the cab to smell like the corpse of a dog that died from a three-pack-a-day Changhong habit is pickling in a box of garlic under the rear seat? Why?

And what about seatbelts?

Imagethief once had his life saved by a seatbelt in a bad, high-speed rollover accident. So I take seatbelts seriously. In Beijing working rear-seat seatbelts are almost as rare as courteous, friendly drivers. Oh, there’s a seatbelt alright. Trapped behind the bench seat. Or maybe the shoulder belt is in front of the bench, but it will be purely for decoration because the buckle is under the cushion. You usually get one or the other. Rarely both.

I know it’s a hard life in the Beijing taxi drivers, offering brutally long working days for meager wages. It’s become a semi-migrant job, filled by men (and the very occasional woman) from the outlying areas of Beijing municipality. I sympathize. While in grad school in the ’70s my own father was briefly a Yellow Cab driver in San Francisco. To this day he still tells stories about how miserable it was. And that was in San Francisco! I’d cheerfully pay more if it meant more comfort and better service. I tip when I get good service. But no matter how rough the job, taking your frustrations out on customers isn’t a recipe for success.

So after a year of ninety minutes a day of tooth-sucking, brake-jamming, actuarially damning, argumentative frustration, I’ve largely abandoned the taxis. I hired the highly-recommended driver of an ex-colleague who left China. I’m paying RMB6,000 per month plus gas. Seems like a lot, and I agonized about it a bit.

Last Wednesday was his first day of work. When I left the apartment, he was waiting for me downstairs. His car is a VW Jetta Santana. Not glamorous, but clean and with a spacious rear seat. He drove me across town for an event, went back to the house to shuttle my wife around, then met me at the end of the day to take me home. The ride back across town was an hour-and-a-half crawl through the worst of Beijing rush hour traffic. But the radio was off, the air conditioning was on and the service polite. I had enough space to open my laptop and work. I had a seatbelt.

It seems like a lot of money. But, yeah, I could get used to it.

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12 Responses to In which I finally hire a car and driver

  1. Biglebufski says:

    Just over two months ago, we took a different plunge and bought a car. A colleague left the Embassy my wife works at, so we picked up the car and the black plates that come with it. Since then I have repeatedly praised the decision to choose a large SUV with bull bars on the front since the driving culture in Beijing is as toxic as the air.
    The first month was a trial as pretty much every trip left me aggressive and furious.
    Any attempt at courtesy is met with incomprehension and then treated as weakness.
    If there is any gap to exploit, it will be exploited, especially if this will result in some kind of bottleneck that will ideally slow all of the traffic behind and in front. I firmly believe that only a limited percentage of the delays on Beijing’s roads are caused by volume and the rest simply by crap driving.
    I recently heard, second hand that someone was blaming some of the unpleasantness of life in Beijing on the split-pant for babies.
    A city’s population that grows up never having to wait for a second to squat and squeeze leads to a group of drivers who react instantly to their every whim, be it stop, park, turn, overtake. To begin with I thought this was a ridiculous theory, but over time I’m coming to think there may be some truth in it. People do the least believable things when driving and it appears that the idea must simply have popped into the head and been translated into a motor response without any analysis of the consequences.
    Anyway, two months later and I am now beginning to enjoy being a car owner. Sadly however this has necessitated a serious decline in my driving ability. I now never consider letting anyone out of a side road, even if I have nowhere to go. I drive too close to everyone to prevent any gaps emerging that might be driven into by those to either side. And I park wherever I please, well as much as I can allow myself. All of these changes have resulted in a much more relaxed ride and although I still marvel at the paucity of the decision making, the speed selection and the ability to manoeuvre I am much less likely to be leaning as far as possible put of the window in order to deliver mortal insults to another cretin who has tried to kill my family.
    I realise this is not on the exact same topic as your post, but I think I just needed to get it off my chest.

  2. Lou Hoffman says:

    You now have something in common with Howard Stringer (although I doubt Howard’s sled is a jetta).

    Was buying a car an option?

  3. Michael D Wallace says:

    “90 minute odyssey that leaves me looking and feeling like a wino who’s been gang-rolled by a college football team after a 36 hour Ripple bender”.
    You are definitely from the City to be able to use this description, in so much vivid detail.
    If I remember correctly, you are in management now and have earned the right to rent a car & driver. Plus you only need to look at your wifes face to tell if its worth it. Yeah, RMB6000 for a car & driver, but your wife not feeling like a wino who’s been gang-rolled by a college football team after a 36 hour Ripple bender, is forever.

  4. Will says:

    @Lou: Buying a car was an option. I don’t have a Chinese drivers’ license, but it’s not a huge pain to get one. But, per biglebufski’s comment, driving myself seems like torture. Beijing traffic is appalling and stressful. Part of the bargain in hiring a driver with his own car is transferring that stress. With a driver I can work or read and use the time semi-productively rather than use it by pumping my body full of cortisols and tripling my blood pressure. Also, in this town, I suspect foreigners are likely to find themselves “at fault” regardless of how an accident actually unfolds.

    However, I have friends who rent cars for the weekend to go bombing off into the countryside, which sounds like a great thing to do.

  5. Alan Paul says:

    Great post. Encapsulates many, many things about life in Beijing. Enjoy the rides.

  6. I spend a lot of time in mainland China, although I live in Macau, and have always said if I moved full-time I would absolutely hire a car and driver. Beyond all of your very, very, very valid points in this excellent post, you forgot one, although it probably is more applicable to Shanghai: If it’s raining or rush hour, even getting a taxi on the street can be an excruciating ordeal.

  7. R Ness says:

    Cue Jefferson’s opening theme.

  8. Will says:

    @Normandy The rain is definitely a big deal here, especially in the outer industrial sticks, where my office is. My last public transit commute was a result of rain drying up all the taxi cabs (metaphorically speaking). But it only really lasts a month a year. Still, will be nice in the winter, too, when I get out of the office late and the Siberian wind is ripping across our plaza.

  9. Shannon says:

    All cultural problems have cultural solutions.

    Radio loud? Wear a bluetooth earpiece and pretend to be talking on the phone. Or simply raise your mobile to your ear and say “Wei?” loudly. If you’re “important” then according to built-in cultural imperatives, your Beijing cabbie will be obsequious.

    Aircon off? Use the buddy-buddy “zamen” instead of the profligate-westerner “wo”. As in “Let us both together turn on the cool air on this blisteringly hot day, comrade.” As long as your Beijing cabbie ain’t doing it for *you* then he’ll be sweet.

    Trunk full of junk? How do we solve this conundrum, Master Driver? Shall I put my suitcase on your white seat covers… but it looks a little dirty… cue miraculous space-rearranging powers. I’ve just “solved a problem” for you, now you can solve one for me…

    Oh, and rain? No-one — and I mean no-one including people with police lights and red-letter plates on their W12 Audi A8s and traffic law immunity — is *ever* on-time when it rains in Beijing. “Xiayu le” is a valid and accepted excuse for everything up to and including marital infidelity in this town.

    But congrats on your car! I made exactly the same decision (*and* got my work to foot the bill) about 3 months ago!

    And your Dad and I will have to have “the taxi driver conversation” at some point. Drove cab for 3 years in Sydney while I was at university. Loved it. It was an applied degree in customer service, defensive driving, and “how to talk to anyone” all rolled into one.

  10. Hose-B says:

    “In the back of my mind lurks the ghost of the former graduate student adding up the cost of groceries as he shops so as not to exceed the cash in his wallet. “

    I remember that guy. He hung out with a skinny Hispanic guy, didn’t he? And it was adding up the cost of beer in the campus pub after class then explaining to those two girls that you weren’t cheap, just broke.

  11. Will says:

    Yep. That was the guy. Now not broke. Just cheap.

  12. William says:

    Traffic accidents, surprisingly, are where the law applies in full. If you know what the law is, and the position of the cars can obviously show what happened. I guess insurance makes it less of a big deal for both / all people involved. Yes, you still see some huge arguments, but that’s letting off steam – at the end of the day, responsibility is attributed by the traffic cop, who will try to make it simple.

    This has nothing to do with being foreign, or diplomatic. I’ve been in the right and in the wrong, and both were open-and-shut cases.