In case you’re unaware, the current population estimate for China is somewhere around 1.3 billion. Beijing alone is home to at least 20 million, possibly even closer to 25 million. To state the glaringly obvious, that’s a lot of people.
Given such a massive population, you would think that people would naturally be used to, you know, having tons and tons and tons of other people around. And to a certain extent, they are. Cars turn right through crowds of pedestrians as if the street were completely clear. When a bus has reached capacity, people feel perfectly comfortable holding on the door handles and literally being closed into the vehicle. Shopping anywhere on the weekend generally means getting carried along in the natural flow of other patrons and hoping you’re deposited in front of a stall selling what you need.
To me, however, another byproduct of being around so many other humans should be developing a certain threshold for waiting. It seems to go hand-in-hand. The more people there are in a city, the more people there are between you and what you need to be doing. Yet, somehow, the residents of Beijing have what can only be described as a patience allergy.
There are two ways back to my apartment from the main expat shopping area. One way takes you down an avenue with tons of traffic lights, where you eventually must wait for an eternity to make a left onto my street. The other way weaves you through a neighborhood, avoiding the traffic lights and just driving straight South down my street. I think you can guess which way is my favorite.
The only problem with the second route is that, between 6am and 8pm, cars are not allowed to drive South down my street. In a city where red lights are merely suggestive and the sidewalk is often considered an extra lane, it blows my mind that taxi drivers always insist on following the no-drive rule on my street. This means that I can only take this route at night.
One night last week I’m heading home and giving the taxi driver step-by-step instructions on how to get there. We get almost to my street when he panics and tells me that we can’t drive down it. I tell him that it’s totally fine after 8pm, so he doesn’t need to worry. He looks at the clock and screams at me that it’s currently 7:57.
I try using my favorite phrase, telling him it’s ok 差不多, which roughly translates to telling him that 7:57 is realistically the same thing as 8. As I say this, I point to all the other cars driving down my street at that very moment. He’s furious, and says, “去不了!” “We can’t go!” Since we’ve already pulled over to the shoulder to have this argument, I use my lateral thinking skills and tell him I’m happy to wait 3 minutes and then make the trip. He’s so angry at this point that he nearly turns purple as he shouts, “等不了!” “We can’t wait!”
I try to speak slowly as I explain to him that those are the only two choices. Either we go, or we wait, it’s very simple. I tell him I really don’t mind waiting and it’s no inconvenience to me. Despite my grasp of the local dialect, what spews out of his mouth at this point is absolutely unintelligible to me. It’s like a cross between the Incredible Hulk and the teacher from Charlie Brown. I have to stifle a laugh as I tell him I have no clue what he’s saying to me.
“If you can’t understand me, you should get out of my taxi!” he shouts back. I smile, and point to the clock. It’s now 8pm. Very sweetly, I tell him that we can now drive down my street without any worries. Never mind that in three minutes of waiting he made a few extra kuai on the trip. Without wasting fuel, I may add, since he turned off his car during our little spat. Despite this, he is Mr. Grumbles all the way down the street to my apartment gate.