“Sorry, I don’t understand”: a cheeky guide to chatting with a Beijing taxi driver

Imagine this: the car stops while waimai the drivers try their best to stop you from opening the door, but you still manage. You choose the back seat because everyone wants to feel special. The door slams shut – it’s been one of those days – and the driver looks at you in the rearview mirror with nonchalant eyes to confirm your number.

You nod, unsure you understood everything he said, and before you can even pull out your phone and sink into the reassuring caress of the digital world, he asks that fatal question that haunts you every day in as a foreigner: 你是哪个国家的人 Nǐ shì nǎge guójiā de rén (Where do you come from)?

Admit it, Beijing drivers are talkative and have been known to ask quite strange questions. They mean well and are really curious, but the next time a driver asks 你的工资是多少 Nǐ de gōngzī shì duōshǎo (How much is your salary)? I might just have a conniption. In these circumstances, it is polite to please them.

They mean no harm and just want to know all the details of your finances. So grit your teeth and let it fly. There are two options here: politely decline to respond in a cheeky tone – 这是一个秘密 Zhè shì yīgè mìmì (It’s a secret) – or really put it out there and see how it reacts, 五万人民币 Wǔ wàn rénmínbì (RMB 50,000). It’s all fun and they understand the tricky dance it takes to communicate with a stranger who can barely count to 100.

Now that the money is out of the way, they will nod and understand your answer – whatever it is – and turn to more pressing questions: 你喜欢中国菜吗 Nǐ xǐhuān zhōngcān ma (Do you like Chinese food)? Now might be a good time to practice some of the vocabulary you loaded onto Rosetta Stone but barely reviewed. First, answer yes – 我喜欢 Wǒ xǐhuān (I appreciate).

No need to specify what you like; it is implicit in the grammar. Now you can pull out the big guns and impress them with all the Chinese must-haves: 饺子 jiǎozi (dumplings), 宫保鸡丁 gōngbǎo jīdīng (Kung pao chicken), 火锅 huǒguō (hot pot), 北京烤鸭 Běijīng kǎoyā (Peking duck), and don’t forget to sprinkle some 米饭 mǐfàn (rice) just to catch them off guard. After all, we are not so different in the end!

Now that your dinner menu has been set, they might press you on your marital status, depending on whether you’re on the wrong side of 25. It will come with a wry smile, so be prepared. They could massage this line of inquiry by asking 你今年多大 Nǐ jīnnián duōdà (How old are you?) Just to be polite, but then launch a full-scale assault on the nature of your love life. Do not worry. Take a deep breath and say 我结婚 Wǒ jiéhūn (I am married) or 我单身 Wǒ dānshēn (I am single).

This should alleviate any stress that has built up in the car about your finances. He can either identify with your marriage or envy your single life, because with a return rate of almost 100%, all drivers in Beijing are married and have children.

Just when the conversation starts to get awkward, you’ll arrive at your destination. From time to time they may ask 我们可以一起拍照吗 Wǒmen kěyǐ yīqǐ pāizhào ma (Can we take a picture together?) which you will accept depending on how well the conversation goes. Later that night, when you need another car to get home, you’ll remember how invigorating the interaction was.

In fact, you’ll relish the opportunity to repeat it over and over and over again, until finally one day you tire of the routine conversations and chatter and develop the habit of getting into a taxi with a determined demeanor and a only answer.

对不起,我听不懂 Duìbùqǐ, wǒ tīng bù dōng

Sorry I do not understand.

READ: Mandarin Monday: Good Morning C, Good Night A, the year in Chinese Internet slang

Images: The Pekingese,, The Nation