The Woman Taxi Driver

02 Nov 2005

The other day I got in a taxi to discover that my driver was a pleasant middle-aged woman. Female taxi drivers are not exceedingly rare in Shanghai, but they’re not common, either. I was feeling gregarious, so I started chatting her up. (That’s one of the things I love about China… barring language barriers or extreme psychological blocks, foreigners can talk to pretty much any Chinese person about anything, and that person will be happy to respond.)

First I asked her a linguistic question: “Can I call a female taxi driver 师傅?” (I was pretty sure I could, but I still get a very male feeling from the word, so I wanted to confirm.)

“Sure,” she said. “Why not?”

With that warm-up out of the way, I got right down to it: “As a woman taxi driver, what challanges or difficulties do you face on the job?” I imagined all kinds of responses… getting ribbed (or mocked) by male taxi drivers, getting rejected by passengers who don’t want a woman driver, etc. It turns out my speculations were all a little silly, I guess.

Her reply: “The only thing that makes it any harder for a woman taxi driver is that it can be hard to find a bathroom when I have to go.”

Wow. My guesses were a bit off the mark. Disappointed by the near complete lack of social insight her frank answer provided me, I decided to try again.

Compared to other Chinese cities, are there more female drivers in Shanghai?” Shanghai is arguably the most modern city in mainland China, so you might expect women in Shanghai to have gotten into more jobs traditionally held by men.

“There are fewer female drivers in Shanghai than other places,” she told me. Then I thought about that. I thought about some of the other cities I’d been to in my travels. Thinking it over, I realzied that even in my own limited experience I could remember seeing more female taxi drivers in other places such as Shandong, for instance. I also realized that considering how so many Shanghainese girls just want to act like princesses, they’re probably not eager to take on jobs like cab driving. Being “modern” by no means need include “socially progressive.”

Then she continued: “Female taxi drivers usually take day shifts, though, because it’s not safe for them to drive the night shift.” I reflected on that.

Sensing that I was out of questions, she looked at me with that gleam in her eye that I knew so well. Then I proceeded to dutifully answer her questions about where I’m from, how long I’ve lived in China, how old I am, what my job is, how much I make per month, if I have a girlfriend, where my girlfriend is from, and if I like Chinese food.

I think I lost. I should have had more and better questions.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Gee, had you follow up her bathroom reply by asking why the guy drivers wouldn’t necessarily have the same challenge, the conversation might have turned lively right away.

  2. Both my aunt and uncle were professional drivers. My uncle was a long distance cargo truck driver. My aunt was a company sedan driver. She told me that many Chinese people think female drivers are more careful on the road, which is opposite of Americans’ view. Neither my aunt nor my uncle has ever had a single traffic accident in their entire 25+ years career.

    I am also curious about the stereotyping of Asians are bad drivers. Does anyone know how and when the stereotyping started?

  3. Da Xiangchang Says: November 2, 2005 at 3:06 pm

    Dude, I got all excited when you described a female cab driver, then I read “middle-aged.” 🙁 Still, it was interesting. I LOVE women who are in supposedly masculine professions–cab driving, engineering, construction, police, firefighting, whatever. I especially love women in charge of big machinery like buses and trucks. I’m not saying I don’t like girly girls–and Lord knows, Shanghai has the prissiest girls in the world–but given two equally hot girls, I’d go for the “masculine” one every time.

  4. Da Xiangchang Says: November 2, 2005 at 3:12 pm

    Tian,

    Like all stereotypes, Asians being bad drivers is basically true. I live in the San Gabriel Valley, which is the most Chinese place in the Western world, and I swear, it’s like a demolition derby here. Asians generally are much WORSE drivers than other people. I think it has to do with the fact that Asians often come to America as adult immigrants and didn’t go through driving classes in high school. Who do they learn driving from then? Their horribly driving relatives, that’s who! Of all the Asians I know personally–my parents and my girlfriend–they’re all terrible drivers, and I’m not that great either. Don’t know why cuz I grew up here as did my girlfriend! Genetics, maybe? Haha.

  5. I don’t know about any stereotypes – but I’ve yet to see a mainlander who I’d actually consider a good driver.

  6. The taxi driver forgot to ask you if you could eat with chopsticks. What I learned from this post is that after living in China for 5 years, they will correctly assume that you know how to use them 🙂
    I’m beeing asked this qustion 2-3 times every day…

  7. Tian,

    I think that the stereotypes (at least in the U.S.) about Asian drivers come from the fact that many Asians there were not well-practiced drivers, perhaps because of where they grew up or had been living (e.g. in another country with few cars, or in a crowded section of an American city where one does not need to drive much). Contrast this situation with that of a majority population, which has been practically connected to a steering wheel since the age of sixteen, and you have the seeds of a stereotype. (This stereotype must be on its way out. At least I hope so.)

    Ben,

    As for mainland drivers, inexperienced ones are bad because they are so new or unpracticed at it. And lots of the drivers here are very new.
    Regarding experienced ones, whether they are good or bad often depends on what you expect from a “good driver”. For risk averse me, although they may be highly skilled at shooting gaps, I find many of them to be too adventurous. Unfortunately, the fact that some drivers are extremely aggressive messes things up by forcing the other drivers to also be overly aggressive just so that they can keep up. (By the way, the penchant for racecar driving on city streets can be found in lots of places around the world.)

    Anyway, I prefer (experienced) women taxi drivers here in China. They know what they are doing but are still less likely to push things to the limit than the men. I feel safer.

    John,

    if you were afraid to ask the family questions, why not ask about her likes and dislikes for types of passengers or interesting passenger stories.

  8. I think I saw maybe 2 female taxi drivers over the course of 4 months in Beijing last fall, but living in Nanjing for 2 months now I would say that 1 in 5 here are female. When I visted Xi’an it seemed like we had a lot of female drivers there as well, but that may have been chance.

    As for Asians being bad drivers, I dont know if that is fair, from my experiance the Japanese are quite good, but I definitly see things in Nanjing every day that make me very aware that my concept of safe driving is very different from the average mainlander.

  9. When my friend, Liang Bing, an I were traveling around China, anytime we would go to a new town or city he always insisted on using female taxi drivers. He thought they were less likely to rip us off (and I went along it). He also always insisted on telling the driver we were from whatever town we happened to be in that day, when the driver asked. We of course had a harder time convincing the driver I was from Benbu…

  10. John,

    Your blog is always great. Love this kind of entry the best.

    I always run into alot of women taxi drivers in Wuhan, Tianjin, and Guangzhou… much more than in Shanghai.

    How many women taxi drivers have you ever seen in the States?

  11. Whenever we took taxis in Xi’an, Joan would actively avoid female taxi drivers. I’m not really sure why–she said they’re stupid, don’t know how to drive, will rip you off purposefully (or not) and so on. Sometimes we’d be waiting for over 10 minutes for a cab, and then one with a woman driver would appear. Joan would then suddenly pretend that she wasn’t looking for a taxi and would wait for the lady to pass us by. What do the girls think of female taxi drivers?

  12. When did the night shift become unsafe? Seriously.

    By the way, I read a wicked article about the Sinosplice concept in the latest Esquire Magazine (Women We Love Issue with Jessica Biel on the cover as sexiest woman alive 2005 – also, Ziyi Zhang was voted sexiest woman in China – which is to say she isn’t “one-in-a-million, but one-in-a-billion”). It’s an “essay” as stated in Esquire so it’s pretty long, but it’s in Esquire (gentleman’s magazine that isn’t so gay like GQ and not even metrosexual) so it earns extra brownie points.

  13. Questions I got when I was in China were very personal

    next time you should try the same:)
    like: are you married? do you have kids? what does your husband do? how much do you make each month? just try them for fun….those people might be wondering: who said Lao wais do not ask personal questions?:)

    After living in US for a long time, I am not used to this kind frank questions any more, but when I am asked by a relative, I can not avoid answering.

  14. Thanks for the clarification on the origin of why Asians are bad drivers.

    My father has been driving for over 15 years in the States. During that period of time, he had only two accidents which were both other drivers’ fault. Once, his car was “t-boned” at an intersection, the other driver (illegal hispanic immigrant, without license nor automobile insurance) ran through a red light. The second time, he was rear-ended by a White woman in a minivan.

    My own vehicles have been hit twice,

    1. White girl ran a red light, and clipped my vehicle’s left front
    2. White woman in a rental car was turning into the parking lot and hit my car in the right front where I was stopped at the stop sign.

    would it be fair to say from my own experience, illegal hispanic male and white women are worse drivers?

  15. Look Tian, the fact that a lot of South Americans living in the USA are not in the country legally is a historical artifact of the European occupation and the Americans isolating the continent through the Monroe Doctrine, plus the fact that the border is simply a sometimes-patrolled river and/or wall. If China (similar occupation and then (self-imposed) isolation) was next to the US, no doubt many long-term citizens and recent well-off immigrants would be automatically appending “illegal” to the word “Asian” as well. And I would be pointing that out too.

    Sorry, that’s sorta a pet peeve of mine.

  16. Look, Micah. The fact that there are many undocumented workers from Central and South America is a consequence of the following facts: 1) wages in the US are much higher than in the workers’ home countries; 2) work visas are given to Indian IT workers and other highly skilled white-collar workers, not unskilled laborers; and 3) there is a long, poorly guarded land border. There are undocumented Asians from China, too.

    BTW, I think the proper term for a woman worker is “nushi.” That is how my tailor asked me to address her, and I used that term with women taxi drivers and office staff.

  17. haha! you lost indeed. it is always
    such a juxtaposition when i think
    about how my own family is
    (chinese) compared to my husband’s
    (english). i think they would consider
    my family rude and nosy whereas
    they would consider my in-laws
    rude for NOT asking personal questions.

  18. I have never met a female cab driver in my life. But i did have a lot of fun chatting with those male drivers about international politics, military etc. Man, they know A LOT of stuffs and they will keep you entertained. Again i am from Beijing and Beijingren are really into this kind of stuffs

  19. Da Xiangchang Says: November 3, 2005 at 12:14 pm

    Micah,

    You bring up an interesting note. Once I was talking to a witty Mexican, and he said, “I didn’t cross the border, the border crossed me.” Haha. How the US took California and Texas is really quite outrageous, but I can’t help but think if Mexico still controlled the SW of the US, it’ll look just like . . . Mexico! And that ain’t a pretty picture.

  20. Never mind, Sonagi. I’m just from California, and there’s a lot of general ill will towards Hispanics around there; I mean, this is the state where a majority of voters (with surprisingly strong support from minorities) approved Prop 187, a proposition to deny health care, education and welfare benefits to California residents illegally in the US. I knew a lot of nice (and some not-so-nice, but they’re people too) Hispanic kids so I guess I’m a little sensitive to labelling Hispanics “illegal”, even if it’s just a tangential connection.

  21. I see your point. Whether or not the guy was legal is irrelevant to the situation. There are uninsured, reckless drivers among US citizens and legal residents.

    I am not from California and do not know much about Prop 187, but the benefits and costs of legal and illegal immigration is a complex issue with no easy answers. Health care, education, and welfare benefits cost money. Undocumented workers do not pay income taxes although they do pay sales taxes. Other states like Arizona and North Carolina are grappling with the costs of hosting undocumented workers.

    No administration, law, or amnesty has deterred people from coming. It is time for a work permit system that would give these workers legal rights and force the companies who hire them to pay full labor-related costs.

  22. Getting back to bad drivers, I’ve lived in many places around the world, but I have never seen drivers as bad as those in Chennai. As far as I can tell, they are the worst even in India. It’s true I used to think Chinese drivers were bad, but the upside at the time is that there weren’t many of them (comparatively). In Chennai, however, many people have cars, motorbikes, scooters, you name it, and at least 70% of them lack basic skills and should not even be on the roads. My guess is they have bribed the local DMV for a license (vey common here). I’m not even including bus and large truck drivers in this, though they are just as bad. Reason #378 those of you in China are lucky to be there.

  23. Stavros Mavropoulos Says: November 4, 2005 at 3:16 pm

    I think one of the reasons you bombed with your questions is because the female taxi driver has never thought about what you said.

  24. The first time I encountered a female taxi driver here in Shanghai, I was quite surprised. There are no female taxi drivers in my country. It’s considered to be a bit too dangerous.Still, I noticed that there are no young female taxi drivers. All those I’ve seen so far are middle-aged.

  25. I love this blog, I discovered it one week ago and I am still trying to read all the posts (that can take a loooooooooooong time).

  26. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a “young” female taxi driver anywhere in the world. It must be partly to do with worries about safety. Young male drivers – sure!

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