Taxi Drivers Like to Read

23 Apr 2007

Have you ever noticed the effect of a piece of paper in your hand when you take a taxi?

If you jump in a taxi empty-handed, the driver will turn around and ask you where you’re going, listen attentively, perhaps ask a question or two to clarify, and then you’re off.

If you have a little piece of paper in your hand, however, it’s a different story. No matter how clearly you tell the driver your destination, he will fixate on that piece of paper. Unless it’s a really simple destination like “the Pudong airport,” he will likely ignore whatever you’re saying and insist on seeing that paper. The written address trumps anything that might come out of your mouth. Just shut up and give him the piece of paper with the address.

I can certainly understand how the drivers would be conditioned this way. Seeing the address clears up ambiguities — both the ones resulting from homophones as well as the ones borne of less-than-perfect foreigner pronunciation. It just feels funny, though, that the driver seems to not trust me to know my own destination, insisting on seeing the paper, when I’m the one that wrote down the address on the paper five minutes before leaving home.

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John Pasden

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

Comments

  1. Funny, today I printed out an address for a taxi ride this afternoon. It’s an important meeting so I didn’t want anything left to chance.

  2. Interesting point John, and I’ve found that it cuts both ways. For instance, several of my students had such terrible pronunciation in English that in order to understand them I had to ask them to write down what they wanted to say.

  3. “It just feels funny, though, that the driver seems to not trust me to know my own destination, insisting on seeing the paper, when I’m the one that wrote down the address on the paper five minutes before leaving home.”

    He probably didn’t know that you’re the academic director of a mandarin teaching program. Don’t blame him, if I saw you on the street I’d probably mistake you for a tone-deaf lao wai myself!

  4. Have you considered writing something in Chinese other than an address on a piece of paper? You can use your imagination on what to write . . . Just don’t get yourself thrown out of the cab!

  5. Out of curiosity, why do you write it down if you’re going to be the one who takes the cab anyway?

  6. Since when did an address or map EVER help a Chinese taxi driver find the appointed location unless he already had it filed away in his little brain housing unit?

  7. Mark,

    Because sometimes I can’t remember it if I don’t write it down.

  8. I love how they squint at the paper you hand them. They want to see each and every little character as if they each were all unique and had personalities of their own. Funny.

  9. Mark in Dunan Says: April 30, 2007 at 11:16 pm

    You guys should be thankful that the Chinese are sensible enough to use street names and buildings numbered on those streets.

    Over here in Japan, where drivers do the same thing with the paper, you can give a taxi driver an exact address, and half the time the first thing out of his mouth will be “How do I get there?”

    With few exceptions (such as Kyoto, which has an easy-to-understand layout based on ancient Chang’an), Japanese addresses make sense only to bureaucrats looking at maps of their domains from their offices. Thus for mane taxi drivers, an “address” is something like, “Go straight for two blocks, turn right at the 7-11, go 200 meters, then the second left and look for a pink apartment building.”

    Chinese system all the way!

  10. lol…. that’s funny
    i laughed literally

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