Our friend Lawrence, who was here last year as a principal of a BC Off-shore school in Shanghai, refused to ride in taxis and buses because of the erratic–sometimes insane–driving we had witnessed. Lawrence’s insistence on safety-first led to a few funny sidebars, like the time we saw him and Helen about a block away from Lost Heaven where we were all meeting for dinner, but didn’t see them at the table for close to half an hour later. He had taken a wrong turn and ended up circling several blocks before he found his way. Better this than getting in to a cab with a mad man.
We have been in cabs when it certainly felt dangerous but last Sunday on our way from Shanghai to the train station in Hongciao, the danger we felt came from a driver in a new Camry. Our cabbie did nothing unusual, as far as we could tell. He did what we have seen cabbies and other Chinese drivers do a hundred times: they merge by driving into the other lane. They always make sure their front tires are about even with the other car’s front bumper, then pull in. In every case up to this point, the other drive backs off to let the newcomer in. It was so common as to seem like a rule to us. No need to shoulder check, wait for space, signal; just gradually pull over into the next lane in front of the current driver who is supposed to back off and make space for you. We have commented many times at the seeming lack of road rage that these maneuvers cause. But, apparently, it is not a rule. This particular driver took umbrage with our driver and gave chase. He stayed with us for about 10 minutes, pulling alongside then cutting the cabbie off so he had to brake or be driven into the cement abutment on the outside edge of the elevated highway. Yes, that is correct–elevated highway. Personally, I have no desire to die in a car accident and I especially do not wish to go out crammed into a cement abutment, suspended or worse over cars below. On Sunday, it seemed a strong probability. When he wasn’t trying to cut us off, he kept beside us, trapping us behind another moving vehicle. Sometimes he would pull away into the far lane. When our driver tried to get out, he would swerve back at us. Cars in three lanes were honking at him but it made no difference. Sadly, our car lacked enough power to make a getaway. Each time our driver tried for the opening, I was hopeful we would lose him, but he just didn’t have the juice to get ahead of a new Camry. When we turned off the main road to enter the station, the Camry slowed down and followed, but now he was biding his time, just waiting for our car to stop. I knew we were in trouble when Geoff said to me, “It’s not our driver he has to worry about. It’s me.”
As soon as our cab stopped, the Camry pulled in front of us, stopped and the driver jumped out and ran to our cab. He yanked open the front door. Before he could pull our driver out, Geoff jumped out of the back seat and flew into his face. Meanwhile, our cabbie handed me the change and got the hell out of Dodge! Wise man! The scene that transpired was not pretty but at least no blood was shed. A loud verbal exchange–English to Chinese, Chinese to English–and much pushing and pulling followed, all of which caught the attention of on-lookers, some of whom gave the Chinese guy the thumbs up. Geoff was unaware but I found it quite worrisome. Can you say ‘outnumbered?’ The driver wouldn’t let us move on and began to behave just like he was still behind the wheel, standing in front of Geoff and trying to cut him off. The yelling eventually caught the attention of a policeman who made the three of us stop.
Try to imagine the scene: Hongqiao is huge, about the size of 3 football fields. It is a major hub, with about 20 fast-train tracks and hundreds of people arriving and leaving every hour. Almost all of them are Chinese and almost none of them understand English. So here’s a short, stalky Chinese guy into it with this tall white guy, both parties yelling about the injustices that have been done to them to a Chinese cop who doesn’t understand English, in a sea of Chinese, none of whom look prone to siding with the foreigners. Am I worried? Oh yeah. But one of us has to remain calm.
I ask for an English-speaking cop and finally, out comes a female police officer. I try to tell our story but the whole time, the other driver is raving. Geoff isn’t exactly quiet either. The officer says we all have to go inside, into the police office. Okay but the little guy keeps up the rant the whole way, which does nothing to calm Geoff down. We still have to put our bags on the scanner so we can enter the building, then as we pick them up, a woman who apparently witnessed the physical nature of the scene outside, began yelling, “This is China! This is China!” drawing more angry crowds. “How ironic,” I thought, as the tune to Alice’s Restaurant began running through my head, “That’s what we say! TIC!” The cop stopped to listen to this woman and others, all witnesses on behalf of the mad driver. Finally, I say to the policewoman in a low but firm voice, “Can we get out of here? Take us into the office. This isn’t safe.” Thankfully. she agreed.
Long story short, we weren’t arrested and neither was the driver of the Camry. We were told that the police would review video of the roadway and if the driver and the cabbie were at fault, they would be in trouble and have to pay fines. No one wanted to have an international incident, I’m sure. Geoff had to apologize to the driver, which he did, and admitted he was wrong. Much to my surprise, the driver was trying to stop Geoff from leaving because he had broken the guy’s cell phone. I guess I missed that part. Geoff gave him some money and we all left peaceably, but I was nervous until I saw that there were no crowds holding pitch forks in the grand hall. We managed to quickly buy our tickets and board a train to Jiaxing within the hour. Good gawd, what an end to an otherwise fun weekend. Mercifully, all’s well that end’s well but the subway is looking a lot better. Lawrence, I see your point!