Dusk falls before the wheels touch down on the tarmac of Pudong International Airport, Shanghai. Passengers rush to grab their suitcases, joining the flow of human traffic streaming into the terminal. Signs route us through exit points out to Arrivals. People are tugging at our sleeves, asking us to take a ride with them, but we muscle our way to the taxi waiting area outside. After standing patiently in line with several other weary passengers, we are finally shuffled into a cab. I hand the driver a piece of paper with the address scrawled on it in English and Chinese, and we set off for the highway and into the darkness. The cab is rickety, the seats are worn down, and empty food wrappers are strewn across the back. There is an overwhelming smell of stale cigarette smoke, echoing the weight of the heavy smog that hovers over the city. The driver has tired eyes and is looking at me with a cold stare in the rear view mirror. His lack of emotion makes me uncomfortable. Not a single word is spoken during the ride, and I feel relieved when the city lights emerge out of the dark in the distance. As I go to sleep later that night, I can’t shake the driver’s cold shadow from my mind. It is there, lurking in the corner of my room, as I pull the covers over me.
In the morning, we explore the downtown area surrounding the hotel. As we walk through rows and rows of run down shacks, eyes eagerly follow our every step. After a quick noodle lunch, we pack up our things. It’s time to relocate to another well known hotel ten minutes away in the heart of Shanghai. I map the route on my iPhone in Google Maps and show it to the bellhop to make sure he tells the driver where we’re going. As we load our baggage into the back of the rusty blue Volkswagen, I notice how my mom tunes into the hissing undertone of the cab driver as he gestures wildly at the bellhop, speaking in Chinese staccato. She asks the bellhop if the driver understands. The bellhop says “Yes, he know where you go.” The driver keeps on rattling off a series of rapid Chinese words, his voice intermittently rising into what sounds like angry yelling. Before getting into the car, my mom turns to the bellhop again. “Is everything ok?”, she asks. “He sounds very angry.” The bellhop makes a waving motion with his hands. “Don’t worry,” he says. “Everything going to be okay.”
We drive off, exiting the parking circle into the notorious traffic of Shanghai. My dad rests his elbow on the window ledge in the passenger seat up front, while my mom and I sit in the back, discussing plans for the week. Like other Shanghai cabs, this one is dirty inside. The seats are sticky, the leather cracked and ripped in various places, the windows are clouded with dust, and there is tape holding many parts of the interior in place. There is a hard plastic cage encasing the driver, which is thin and discolored in a yellow shade, worn from age. The driver has a slim frame topped with disheveled hair. His aged hands wave in the air at oncoming traffic and I notice his eyes are wide open and darting manically as I catch his face in the mirror.
A cell phone rings. The cab driver presses a button on the dashboard to answer and a woman’s voice rings out on speakerphone. After a few seconds the cab driver responds, screaming at the dashboard. He is waiving his hands and shouting at the top of his lungs, sounding very disgruntled and disturbed. They carry on a violent conversation for a few minutes. He hangs up and we are left in silence, alert and confused at what just transpired. I check my phone as we merge onto the highway – 5 minutes to destination. The phone rings again and his shrieks begin the moment he answers it louder and harsher than before. We are sitting in traffic, listening to his howls and I notice on my map that we have missed our exit. I assume the driver is taking us on a longer route for a higher fare. On the edge of our seats, we listen to the woman’s screams from the speaker as I keep tracking our itinerary on my phone. The driver takes a left where we should be taking a right, up onto the top level of a split level highway.
Shanghai’s transit system has a separated highway and expressway that are stacked upon each other. Knowing that the top level has fewer exits (because it is an expressway) I reach out to the distressed driver, aware that we are going the complete opposite way of the hotel. I try to get his attention by tapping on the plastic that surrounds his seat. It takes a few seconds before I get him to pause his screaming and make him look at my phone. My dad points out the route back towards the city center, knowing the driver doesn’t speak English, and signaling that we need to exit the top level as soon as possible. We see an exit ahead and we all gesture to it, but he makes no attempt to enter the ramp and continues straight. He grabs my phone, holding it out of the window with his left hand while driving with his right, all the while screaming at the lady on speakerphone. He is yelling in Chinese, we are yelling at him in English to give back my phone and get off the highway, the lady on the speakerphone is screaming, and we are in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the expressway heading out of the city.
After some tense moments have passed, the driver finally hands my phone back and makes his way to the next exit. My parents sit in silence, visibly stressed, my hands are clammy and we all try to accept that we are stuck in this cab with little control. Once off the highway I try to guide the driver back to the city with the use of my phone, but he ignores my finger pointing at the map of Shanghai.
At long last, he finally pulls to the side of a busy street to call a dispatcher, and it turns out she speaks English. We explain the situation to her as the driver continues to talk heatedly to himself in the background. My dad and the driver hand the phone back and forth between them as the dispatcher acts as a translator. She tells my dad that the driver says it is our fault and he did not understand where we wanted to go. Of course, we all know he is lying, but my dad decides not to pick a fight, and calmly asks that along with the correct directions she also ask him to stop yelling while we are in the car. The dispatcher speaks to the driver one more time, then they end the call and he pulls back into traffic. As we sit at a red light waiting to make a U-turn he dials the lady he spoke to before on speaker phone again to resume their shouting match in Chinese, despite our previous conversation, which we thought had resolved the situation. By now, we have been in the cab for over 30 minutes with constant deranged yelling. I look at the map and realize we are on the most direct route to the hotel. There is an expressway on-ramp ahead, and I pray the driver doesn’t move towards it. At the last minute, he makes a turn onto the ramp of the expressway, and we enter a gridlock of vehicles, trapped once again on all sides in traffic hell.
I start feeling very anxious as I listen to the driver’s frantic screams, watching his violent body movements, knowing I cannot do anything to alleviate the stress the situation is causing my parents or get out and change our course. His window is rolled down, allowing the noise of honking cars to add to the chaos, while city fumes whirl around in the humid air inside the car. I see my parents shifting uncomfortably in their seats, their chests rising and falling with heavy breaths. Feeling hot and anxious, I close my eyes, and like a child plug my ears with the tips of my fingers in an attempt to find inner peace and quiet. It is very rare that I reach this level of discomfort, but the feeling of being trapped is overwhelming. The driver’s screams get louder and more hysterical. I take a deep breath.
And then it happens.
Suddenly, I hear a loud noise above the screams. I open my eyes. It’s my mom, banging on the plastic case surrounding the driver! She is yelling back at him, with high-pitched, unintelligible words coming out of her mouth. I’m shocked at how she looks just as manic as the driver does in this moment, throwing her arms around and screaming at the top of her lungs.
At first, I see the cab driver’s’ eyes becoming very wide as he stares at my mom in the rear view mirror. Turning away from the speakerphone, he begins to yell at my mom in Chinese, but this only energizes her further as she rattles the plastic harder, pointing her finger at him in a grave, accusatory motion. My dad and I watch, awe-stricken. This shouting match continues for several seconds, the lady on speakerphone chiming in with her own yelling.
Finally, the cab driver gives up and ends his phone call. We wait a few minutes and the phone rings again. My mom starts rattling the plastic. “Don’t you dare answer this,” she threatens. Hesitant, the driver picks up the call, but as soon as the first angry words come out of his mouth, my mom’s thundering voice overpowers him, and he quickly hangs up. Then, for the very first time in 45 minutes, there is silence inside the cab. My mom and I break out into laughter. It’s an expression of relief, but also the only way to deal with the absurdity of the situation.
In silence, I track the route to the hotel on my phone. We finally exit the expressway down into the city center. The English-speaking dispatcher calls us again to confirm our location, and the cab driver nods his head and points forward with his finger acknowledging we are on track. He seems to finally have given up.
We pull into the hotel. As we unload our bags, my mom tells the bellhop we are only paying what the original ride should have cost, and I show them screenshots of the off-track route he took us on. The bellhop nods, then says something in Chinese to the driver. The cab driver starts to bellow at the top of his lungs, slamming his fists on the roof of his car. Hotel guests walking by stop and turn, looking on curiously. We walk away from the scene, as another hotel employee helps usher us inside.
At the end of the day, it appears that word has spread among the hotel staff about the crazy cab driver who tried to take us out of the city and caused an obnoxiousus scene in the hotel driveway. In the evening, hotel staff continuously apologized for the inconvenience while prying for more details. Discussing the dangers of Shanghai’s run down cabs with the staff, my family and I sat 37 floors above the city sipping full glasses of wine. Conveniently our view overlooked the expressway we were trapped on earlier in the day, illuminated by the headlights of cars stuck in the gridlock. Our trouble seems far away as we look down and reminisce on the situation, swearing off Chinese cabs for the remainder of the trip.