“Guess what time I start my day,” Mr. Guo chuckled, not without pride, when I thanked him for picking me up at the hotel.
It was 6:20 am when I climbed into his car, so I guessed he started his day around 5 am, like most dayshift taxi drivers.
He laughed, “I get up at three and leave home around four.”
I wowed, then, “but is it worth it, since few needs taxi service from four to six?”
“If I don’t leave home early, I’d be stuck in the morning traffic. Traffic is really bad in Jinan (the capital city of Shandong Province).”
He must be living quite far from the city center, I thought. As in many cities of China, house prices in Jinan, an inland city not known by many foreigners, are ridiculous. Twenty to Thirty thousand RMB per square meter in the city, about fifteen thousand forty minutes away or farther.
He continued, “Guess how many hours I work every day!”
I presumed he handed the car to the nightshift around four or five in the afternoon.
But I was wrong again.
“I am the only driver of this car,” he said proudly.
“You worked till nine or ten in the evening?” I sounded incredulous, but by then, I wouldn’t be shocked if he worked later than ten.
He counted the hours, then said, “not that many hours. I call it a day around eight. Go home, eat, go to bed about nine, then get up at three.”
I wowed again, “So you don’t see your family very much then. Don’t they complain?”
He sighed, then chuckled, “Separate beds, united hearts! I don’t want my wife to work outside. I am the only bread earner. I have to make enough for five: my parents, my wife, my daughter, and myself of course.”
“Really long days,” I said.
He laughed again. Light-hearted laughter of a chubby middle-aged taxi driver.
“Do you take a day off every week?” I asked.
“Not really. I take a break only when I feel really tired. I am the only bread earner, I’ve told you.”
“Life is not easy, isn’t it?” I found my words empty and felt embarrassed.
“I am used to it. Been doing this since 2007,” he sounded proud and cheerful, which I admired greatly.
“What did you do before 2007?”
“I was in the army. A soldier for over ten years, three of which in Xinjiang.”
“But doesn’t the government assign you veterans government jobs?”
“In theory, yes.” He paused, then continued, “but you should know the Communists. What they say is one thing, what they do another.”
A former soldier criticizing the government took me by surprise. I fell silent for a moment, then gingerly, “So you are anti-communist?”
“An arm is no match for a leg. (A Chinese slang meaning the weak can’t defeat the strong.) I can’t say I am anti-communist.”
“Disagree with them?” I lowered my voice further.
“Right. Disagree is the word,” he said, “but really, an arm is no match for a leg. Futile to fight. The other day, I had a passenger, a granny in her seventies. She said to me, ‘you must denounce your Communist Party membership! Denounce it immediately!’ Guess how I reply? I said, ‘what are you fighting for at your age, with your old bones? I tell you, an arm is no match for a leg, particularly not your old arm. You listen to me, take care, cherish what you have, enjoy the rest of your life, no more fight. Fighting is futile. Pointless. An arm is no match for a leg! Lucky you are in my cab. Another driver would take you directly to the police station.’ She shut up immediately. Am I not right? An arm is no match for a leg.”
I forced a laugh.
He continued, “So I work hard, make as much as I can for my family, try to be content. You can’t rely on the government. Fighting is pointless. I don’t go to protests. Now there is face detection. You go to a protest, the next day, the cops show up at your door. They don’t arrest you while you protest in a group. They get you individually, at your home! A few of my fellow veterans were taken by the police several months ago.”
“Protest. We veterans are supposed to receive monthly subsidies, more than two thousand (RMB) a month, from the central government. But they never came. The local government kept them. So we protested.”
“Oh, you did protest!”
“Well, that’s money I deserve, more than two thousand a month! I should go. But I kept a low profile, I tagged along at the tail of the group and mingled with the crowd. Never go to the front line. Those at the front line were put to jail for five days. In China, the outstanding bird gets shot first.”
“Did you get your subsidies after the protest?”
“The protest worked then.”
“Still, an arm is no match for a leg. That’s why I work long hours. I rely on myself and my family on me. And we are a happy family.”
He did sound happy and laughed a lot as we chatted our way to the airport. He was not annoyed when he found that he didn’t have enough gas to return to the city and the gas station at the airport was closed. He unloaded my luggage, and with the same sincere smile I saw from the hotel lobby, he wished me a safe journey.