Taxi Incident

On Sunday Wilson and I made a little alcohol run to the Metro. The Metro is a big supermarket with lots of Western food and stuff. It’s one of the few places you can buy vodka in Hangzhou, and the prices are actually decent.

Anyway, we had to get our vodka and a few other goodies that are hard to find elsewhere (Hellmann’s mayonaise, French’s mustard, good bread, canned tuna…). But we were kind of in a hurry, because I was trying to get back to ZUCC to hear one of my students sing at a concert on campus. She has a really amazing voice.

The problem with the Metro is that it’s in the middle of nowhere, on the east edge of town. You have to take a taxi out there and back (unless you want to be on the bus for like an hour each way), and it’s not always easy finding a taxi back. (The other problem with the Metro is that the stingy bastards actually charge for plastic grocery bags! What’s up with that?! It’s not a normal Chinese practice.)

Anyway, we were holding our groceries, standing on the side of the road outside the inconveniently-located Metro, waiting for a cab.

5 minutes went by. A cab pulled up, and some guy further up the road from us flagged it down and got it. Was he there before us? Who knows. He got the cab.

5 more minutes went by. No cabs.

5 more minutes went by. Two guys in suits that looked to be in their thirties came from a sidestreet and stood a little further down the road from us.

5 more minutes went by. Another unoccupied cab finally appeared! Fortunately there was no one waiting further up the road to grab it this time. He approached our frantically waving figures. He kept rolling, coming to a stop by the two guys just past us, further down the road. One of the guys got in the front seat as quickly as he could.

I was pissed. I rushed over there, still holding my grocery bag in one hand and a Smirnoff Vodka bottle in the other. I got in front of the door so he couldn’t close it.

Get out,” I told him firmly, in Chinese. He stayed rooted to the seat, with the stubborn look of a kid who refuses to eat his brussel sprouts. “Get out!” I repeated, as he urged the driver to get moving. He wasn’t budging.

Meanwhile, Wilson was looking on, kind of stunned (hoping I wasn’t mad enough hit the guy with the vodka bottle, he told me later). The partner of the guy already in the cab, apparently made nervous by the tense situation, was making no move to get in the taxi.

My demand was falling on deaf ears, and the taxi finally took off, the door still open. I yelled something I probably shouldn’t have. It was English, but I’m sure he got it. The cab went about 100 meters down the road and stopped. The other guy went to go get in. Apparently angered by what I yelled, stubborn guy in the front seat pretended like he was going to get out and come fight me. I made the manly “bring it on!” gesture, and they promptly drove away.

It was all a ridiculous incident. I certainly wasn’t going to get in a fight over a taxi. It’s just too stupid. But underlying it all is an anger, not just at one guy in one particular incident, but at a whole society.

I’ve never been in a country like this, where people are so “me first!” crazy. There are no lines for buses, just a pushing hoarde. The other day in McDonalds, after I had already stood patiently in line for about 5 minutes, some woman suddenly pushed her way in from the side and placed her order right in front of me! I just stood there and let her. What am I going to do, change a society? It’s the same in banks and at ticket counters. I’ve been living with this every day for two years now.

But still, this incident was just too infuriating. I really believe that in the USA, there are few people who would quickly hop into the taxi instead of doing the civil thing and saying, “you were here first, you take it.” I think that in all the other countries I’ve been to — Japan, Mexico, Korea, Thailand — most people would do the same. What is it about this place that makes people so drivenly self-centered? Why does the concept of a “line” or of “waiting one’s turn” not seem to apply here?

I’ve heard people say China is not ready for democracy, and I think that idea has a lot of merit. China isn’t even ready for the concept of “wait your turn.”


John Pasden

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


  1. why let her ? the woman at the McDonalds ?
    why not change a society ? don’t get into this chinese idea that society is this weird thing distant from us. Society is only the sum of individuals, it changes by the behaviour of each one of them, as a foreigner living in it you are part of it.
    I don’t let people cut me off.
    I don’t let cars cut me off.
    I stop to let pedestrians cross the streets.
    I kick the woman cutting me off at the counter.

  2. I don’t tolerate queue jumpers, but rather than blowing a gasket, I just look at them icily and sniff, “Wo xian lai le. Qing xiao deng.” A colleague embarrassed his Chinese wife when he got angry at a queue jumper at the bank.

    As for cab grabbers, I’ve seen this happen in Seoul and NYC. What bothered me about your story was not the folks jumping in the cab, but the taxi drivers who seemed to have bypassed a laowai in favor of locals.

  3. Da Xiangchang Says: November 5, 2005 at 3:54 am


    What happened to the old comments?!

  4. DXC,

    The really old comments (that were originally hosted on Haloscan) were mostly just lost. (I imported some of them.)

    The old comments on Movable Type were imported.

  5. I think some of the line-jumpers see a lao wai and figure, “Odds are due to language he can’t argue with me, so I’ll jump in front of him, and there is nothing he is going to do about it.” The possibility of a physical confrontation doesn’t enter into their thinking, as it might to a person at home.

    My personal preference is to try and find some way to show how rediculous the situation is, without losing my cool. One day a guy cut in line at the ATM, so I made up some stupid song in Chinese and sang about the rude people who don’t know what ‘pai dui’ means. The indifferent man who cut in line quickly became an embarassed man who apologized to me. The point had been made.

  6. Rob,

    You actually made up and sang a song in Chinese to the guy?!? That is hilarious! Cool that it worked.

    Once or twice I’ve said to line-cutters, “can’t you see that we’re all in line here?” and that did the trick too.

  7. Wow… All I can say is wow…

    I’ve never even been close to angry enough to do something like that in that kind of situation, and you seem like (or at least blog like) a much more level headed guy than I am. The sheer number of rude actions you have to tolerate there must be way more than here in Taiwan. It almost makes me a bit afraid to visit the mainland this summer.

  8. Wow, that was a long time ago first posted. How do you react these days? The queue-jumpers are still around. I found the ‘shoulder-turn and block’ most effective. It’s like protecting the lane in basketball, gotta be quick and eyes peeled all the time. Guy/gal is gonna be coming from your left and behind.

  9. I’ve been a month in Shanghai now, and was beggining to think I was paranoid. Of course people do these things in other places. The problem here is that everyone does it (or at least wants to…)

  10. Yes, I agree. Chinese people are among the most inconsiderate people I have ever met. But I now come to expect it – I have lowered my expectations for them – and so I am rarely bothered by it. I try to use it to my advantage, and push in when I can.

  11. Sonagi, I think it is shao deng, not xiao deng. As in: 稍等。

  12. Yeah.

    There’s a fine line between being assertive enough to get things accomplished (gently elbowing people on a crowded subway to get through) and being obnoxious (tripping someone who’s going for your seat).

    Finding that balance was quite possibly the most challenging skill I developed while in Shanghai.

  13. wanglaohu Says: July 15, 2006 at 10:12 am

    In Taiwan/Taipei there is a strong concept of a line. If people are waiting for the MRT (subway), they all stand in a line and nobody jumps into the line. Impossible! There are even lines on the floor where you have to stand and Taiwanese people always stand in the line. Sometimes i see foreigners standing between the lines, mostly because they don’t understand the system. The must funny situation i see every saturday is when young people wait to enter a club (kind of alternative non-commercial jazz club). They are WAITING about 1 hour in a straight line in front of the club even though there is plenty of space they could just hang around. If the weather is good (no rain) i also saw them sitting on the floor in a straight line. Amazing i always think, impossible to see something like this in Europe or America.

    Sometimes when there is no straight line in 7/11 store people let me go first, but when i notice that they were first I kindly tell them to take the chance. They always very happily tell me Xie Xie, Xie Xie…

  14. Meiguohuachow Says: July 16, 2006 at 7:16 am

    I was in Shanghai just a couple of weeks ago for the first time in my life. Chinese
    people have a bit of street market mentality in their culture (and I know, from being
    Taiwanese), but the people in Shanghai are almost beyond comprehension. If you
    leave more than 6 inches between you and the person ahead of you in a line, any line,
    even waiting to cross the street, someone will cut in front of you. I don’t know if I’m
    being culturally insensitive or not. I wonder if Shanghainese like doing things this way?

  15. wanglaohu Says: July 16, 2006 at 12:19 pm

    Does anybody have a anthropolocial answer why people in Shanghai cut the line and in Taipei people don’t? In my home country it’s VERY VERY impolite to cut a line, people blame you and you will loose face in front of all people in the line if you do it. Everybody watches you very strange and maybe think: What a rude ******!

  16. Wow. I just got back to the U.S. from a trip to Taiwan. It was my first time there and my experience was totally opposite from yours in Shanghai. Even though Taipei is a large, crowded city, I never noticed shoving or cutting in line. When I took the subway in Taipei, I was surprised to see lines painted on the platform floor to indicate where to line up to wait to get on the subway train, and I was even more surprised to see people actually line up within the painted lines. I thought, “Wow, how orderly!” I was actually expecting a more hectic scene at the subway station.

  17. Wanglaohu and AlexG:

    Taiwan’s civilized.

  18. Da Xiangchang Says: August 18, 2006 at 6:28 am

    The Taiwanese are real civilized alright, especially when their legislators start bitchslapping each other in Parliament. Or when they bite each other in nightclub brawls. 😉

  19. This is a bit late but rather, I just wanted to put in that not all Chinese are like that, rather, a lot of the ones I know that live in Shanghai and Beijing aren’t. That behavior is generally considered very “tu” or “poor” where I live.

    However, I do agree that Chinese people are rather impatient as a whole, and has the sentiment of not being cheated out of their due no matter the cost. Whether or not they do deserve it is not in question.

    This is also not a question of being civilized or not, the concept of civilization is different for each culture, in America and Taiwan, this may seem uncivilized but what right is there to say to that standard? Chinese have their own concept of being civilized, and they might not meet fully to other culture’s standard of civilization, but does other’s concept of civilization truly matter to those living in their own society, their own civilization?

    Anyhow, although I agree that the Chinese have a tendancy toward selfish mentality and impatience, this does not in any way make them uncivilized.

  20. I expect that everyone’s like that because everyone else is doing it. 🙂 if most people aren’t going to line up, the people that try to be patient will just lose out. either you join in, or you spend an excessive amount of your time waiting while others think you’re daft for not standing up for yourself. it’s just the way it is. 🙂

    at least I don’t have to worry about annoying people behind me while I spend ages trying to decipher the menu – they’ll just go ahead when they want to order.

  21. It’s hard to say what accounts for the difference between Taiwan and mainland China. If you ask my parents, they would blame it on Communism; before Communism, there was a sense of right and wrong in Chinese society, but the Communists tried their best to iradicate all the old value systems, so what you had left was “every man for himself”.

    I think that there was more queue-jumping in Taiwan in the past as well; one thing may be that this is partially due to transitioning from a agricultural to an industrial society. If you think about it, queues didn’t form up in the countryside. You grew most of the food yourself, there was a lot of self-sufficiency (so you didn’t need to interact much with other people outside your group), and if you needed something, you went and knocked on the door of the house of the dude you wanted to transact with. As society urbanizes, you have more peopel crammed in to smaller areas, and more need for social rules. This would account for why queue-jumping is seen by the middle-class in Shanghai as “tu”. This would also account for the interesting situation where “heavily urban” Jiangnan people would regard the (more rural) inland areas as dangerous places full of fierce (xiong) people (interesting to me, because in the West, country folks are idealized as simple, warm-hearted people and rural areas are considered almost crime-free compared to the “dangerous” inner cities).

    Of course, the level of wealth probably has something to do with this as as well. When you’re barely above subsistence level, you might not care so much about other people or how you are perceived by them. That might account for the transition in Taiwan (and the wealthier parts of China) from ill-mannered to well-mannered as well.

  22. I’ve been in a few fights in China, the worst was when a guy walked into this bar and didnt close the door. It was in Inner Mongolia in January. So I went over to his table, took him by the hand, and showed him how to close the door. He was not happy and it ended in a huge brawl with me going to the hospital to get stitches.

    Another time, not a fight, this lady pushed me aside while I was in the bank changing money. I was a bit angry and told her to piss off and then she started screaming that I hit her. I did no such thing. I think she wanted me to apologize or something, instead I just asked her if she was “Shenjingbing” very loudly. It was actually kinda funny…

  23. I love singing out songs to people when they cut infront of me in line!

  24. I think it’s got a lot to do with shortages in many things over the last couple of hundred years, and people have not adapted yet to the fact that things are now plentiful in China. It is exactly the same as people running for buses, even when another will be along in a couple of minutes. People here are “zhao ji” (urgent/anxious) and it is currently in their blood. The cultural revolution perhaps also played a part, as I suspect that did a lot to damage moral fibre.

    It won’t change anytime soon, but a loud “pai dui” (queue) almost always embarasses the offender into submission, usually with a quick “sorry sorry”, and makes the point (a point I think is important to make).

    3.5 years in Shanghai taught me aggressive taxi catching techniques, and I find that Beijingers in comparison are a bit softer, they will stand in front of you but won’t physically elbow you out of the way as Shanghainese will. I use this as an opportunity to take advantage of foreigner status by elbowing Shanghainese back out of the way, they take offense but at the end of the day won’t get into a fight with a laowai.

    Regarding Taipei, I was there in 1996, and remember people forming queues to get on buses but then elbowing in front when the bus arrived. I wonder if it has improved.

    P.S. Are you the same John from ChinesePod? If so keep up the good work.

    P.P.S. I see the subtitle of your blog is “Try to Understand China”. Fine, but it needs to go both ways. If China wants to be a part of the global community it cannot only expect the world to understand China, China needs to understand the world and meet common ground also. Sorry but this comment just kinda grates…

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