Beijing Cabbies: China’s Talking Heads

Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest mother—r in the world. If I moved to a martial arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. … If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.—Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

The granddaddy of all Chinese martial arts monasteries is the Shaolin Temple, the birthplace of both kung fu and Zen Buddhism. In 1992, when I was 21, I dropped out of Princeton to pursue bad mofodom there. I lasted two years until I finally reached the point of diminishing returns: It’s easy to be tougher than most, impossible to be tougher than all. Besides, there are limited—legal—career options for that particular skill set. So I went back to college, thinking I’d never return. But friends who have been to Shaolin recently kept telling me I had to go back. Everything’s changed, dude. You won’t believe it. And so I am traveling back to Shaolin on a kind of personal 10-year reunion to see what is different and what has stayed the same. I am in a compare-and-contrast frame of mind.

There is still no memorial to the students who died in Tiananmen Square

The flight to Beijing is now, blessedly, direct: no eight-hour layover in the price-gouging Tokyo Narita airport. But a look at the newspaper gives me a certain chill of déjà vu. As in 1992, a Bush is president, and he is presiding over a troubled economy with a massive deficit and a serious unemployment problem. The Asian country he’s blaming for our troubles is no longer Japan, however; it is now China. They are exporting too many goods (textiles, consumer products) too cheaply. One category he left out is female orphans, which, from a look at the passengers on the plane, are also a major export. There are a number of white couples with very young Chinese daughters who are going back for another. They spend the flight giving advice to the young white couples who are going to China for their first.


SARS has displaced AIDS as the major concern of the Health and Quarantine Declaration Form on Entry Into China. “Fever, cough, and difficulty breathing” have been added to the “Please check the box before the items of the following symptoms or illnesses if you have any now” inventory. But I am amused to see that “psychosis” is still on the list. Extended stays at Shaolin require a bit of psychosis.

It used to be nearly impossible to get money out of banks in China

Beijing’s airport is my first big shock. Mental exclamation marks start firing off in my skull. ATM machines! Sound-dampening panels! Sit-down toilets! Moving sidewalks! Efficient and almost friendly customs agents! It used to look like the airports in war-torn countries, lots of cracked windows and men in army uniforms. With its recent renovation, it is a good deal spiffier than La Guardia, Newark, or JFK.


The Shaolin Temple is located in the Song Mountain range in Henan province, a centrally located agricultural state. The nearest transportation hub is the capital, Zheng Zhou, which is a three-hour cab ride away from Shaolin. The government has built an international airport outside the city limits, a dramatic improvement on the airstrip without a fence that was Zheng Zhou’s previous excuse for an airport. The problem is a roundtrip ticket to Beijing was $800 on Expedia.com, but the roundtrip to Zheng Zhou was $2,000, which is curious because you can buy a same day, one-way ticket from Beijing to Zheng Zhou for $90.

It’s good to be the king, even better to be the emperor

I was originally planning to walk up one floor, buy a ticket, and go immediately, but I’ve been traveling for 20 hours and am seriously jet-lagged. So I decide to stay in Beijing for a couple of days before going to Shaolin. No one should travel through Beijing without setting aside at least a day and a half to see the three essential attractions: the Great Wall (it’s, well, great), the Forbidden City (it’s good to be the king, even better to be the emperor), and Tiananmen Square (in memory of the democracy activists).


As great as those sites are, what I’m really excited about is a chance to talk with a Beijing cabbie. In China’s (to put it politely) heavily edited media environment, Beijing cabbies are the country’s opinion-makers. If the gradual liberalization does not reverse course, one day they will all have their own talk-radio programs.

Old neighborhoods like this are being torn down and replaced by high rises

A decade ago, the beginning of my conversations with every Beijing cabbie had a certain formula. He’d compliment my Chinese. I’d say it wasn’t very good. He’d ask where I was from. I’d say America. He’d say America was a great (or powerful or rich) nation: the greatest in the world. I’d say not really. He’d say oh yes. I’d say, well, China is certainly advancing rapidly. He’d say with a certain degree of frustration, oh no, China’s advancement is too slow (or inadequate). I’d say it is getting better every day. He’d say with a certain degree of doubt that it would take 50 (or 60 or 100) years for China to be adequate.


I get into the cab and ask to go to the Great Wall Sheraton.

“Hey, your Chinese is very good,” my cabbie says.

“Oh no, please, there is no need to be polite.”

“No, it is very good. Do you live in Beijing?”

“No, I’m just visiting. I haven’t been in China for nearly 10 years.”

“What do you think?”

“It has changed a lot. China has advanced rapidly.”

And this is where he completely ignores the old formula. Instead of politely denying this, he says, “Yes, China has changed a great deal.”


I am momentarily at a loss for words: Doesn’t he want to know what country I am from? “Um, yes, just look at the airport. It is so much better.”


“No, it is still inadequate. They are going to build a much better one down the road in time for the 2008 Olympics.”

“Oh right, the Olympics. I remember when I was here in 1992, everyone was disappointed the 2000 Olympics went to Sydney not Beijing.”

“True, we were not happy. But it is better this way. Eight more years of preparation. Now the conditions are much better. When we are introduced to the world, the world will respect us.”

“The world will give China face,” I say, and he laughs.

“Where are you from?” he asks me.



“America is a very rich country.”

“Not these last few years. It has been tough.”

“Yes, I have read that,” he says, “but look at it this way: America is at the top of the mountain. It is very hard for it to keep going up.” I am stunned. Was that pity? After a moment of silence, he continues, “But America’s economic report for the last quarter was very strong, so maybe things will start to improve.” This makes me smile. They are still watching us as closely as they ever did.

“How long before China is America’s equal?” I ask.

“Never happen,” he says, but he’s laughing like he doesn’t mean it.

“Come on.”

“Fifty years,” he says still laughing.

This is what I wanted to know. The Chinese dream is still the same: to catch the American dream. They still see the future as a multigenerational marathon. But unlike 10 years ago, the race doesn’t seem quite so hopeless. The Olympics, membership in the WTO, manned space flights: These are mile markers on the road to superpower status.