Near Yellow Mountain

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Driving Lessons

One of the first issues that confronts you when moving to a new country is transportation - getting to/from work, schools, shopping, etc. We never had to give getting places a second thought in the US, we just got in the car and went.

In Asia, we had two distinct travel experiences. The train system in Japan was so good, I never gave driving to work a second thought, the train was too convenient. We had a car my wife used a lot more than I did. The only real difficulty driving in Japan was the parking. Americans are not used to having to retract there mirrors or offer up their vehicle to mechanical arm that files it away. We didn't worry about getting stopped because the Japanese police were always helpful to "gaijin".

China was a different story. Driving is relatively new in China. Rules are flexible and survival on the road seems to come from a sixth sense only Chinese have. Examples: red lights are a suggestion you might want to consider slowing down. Going the wrong way on a one way street is ok if you honk your horn loud and long.

Most companies make ex-pats sign an agreement not to get a local license or drive while in China. When we arrived in Shanghai, the subway system didn't cover much of the city. Buses were not an option - too crowded and slow. We had to have a car and a driver. Fortunately most companies, mine included, pay for a car and a driver.  What the company can't do is help you communicate with your driver. The challenge of utilizing a non English speaking driver and only having one car is a big issue for most American ex-pats.  At home, multi car households are normal. Having to plan your family life around the use of one car is stressful. In the US, if you don't know exactly where you are going, you can get a map with instructions on-line,  use a GPS or stop someone and ask.  In China, more often than not, with bilingual directions, each new destination is like an episode of "The Amazing Race"without the promise of a million dollar prize for winning. For my family, the driver situation was a challenge that turned into one of the most positive aspects of our time in China. Ultimately my wife and I both got Chinese driving licenses (I was the only American my company had in China at the time so they didn't know enough to tell us not get a license).

Our first driver was supposed to speak English but after 5 minutes the first day, it became clear he only knew how to say "hello". Fortunately by minute 15 we discovered he spoke Japanese which made things quite easy for me. He also liked our daughters which was another plus. On the other side of the ledger, we found out he did not believe he should ever have to take an order from a women. This fact did not please my wife. After weeks of dealing with "Morris", our nickname for him, my wife decided we needed a new driver. As it would happen, shortly after the decision, "Morris" had a dispute with the car company and held the car for ransom. We never saw him again.

My secretary called the car company and insisted that our new driver had to speak English and have a good attitude. I think the response was something like "both those drivers are already assigned and the other 10,000 drivers are 'learning English'". We did interview one driver who had memorized five English sentences. When he met my wife, he quickly delivered his small cache of English with a big smile. My wife was so excited to have a smiling, English speaking driver to replace the malevolent "Morris", she forgot to ask him any questions and sent him to my office so I could close the deal. I didn't really care if the driver spent English or Japanese - he just needed to speak a language I spoke. I tried to engage him in conversation and it became clear he spoke five sentences very well and that was it. I called in my secretary to translate, complimented him on his five sentences and we went back to the list of candidates. We were tempted to hire a non English speaker because he looked like Tiger Wood's twin but decided the novelty would probably wear off by day 2. More candidates came and went

A few days passed and we decided to lower our standards to "good attitude". That was the day we met Wu Feng (aka "Philip"). Philip was a charmer and he did speak some English. "Some" being defined as less than 150 words. He did not pretend to know English and he told us that in a simple English sentence. A good sign.

What we didn't know at the time was how he would change our lives for the better.

The first day I was in the car with Philip he was quiet. I should have taken note because that was the last day he was quiet. I was taking Chinese lessons so at first we spoke a combination of bad Chinese and bad English. Late in the first week Philip burst out with something that sounded like "I know who Nathan Hale is!" I asked him in Chinese to repeat what he had said and he repeated with gusto that he knew American history from school and that he knew about the less than well known hero from America's Revolutionary War.  I told Philip that he knew something that most Americans didn't know. This started a debate about how Americans could be so poorly educated that they didn't know about Nathan Hale. Philip dropped me off at home with great skepticism and I rushed in the front door to my computer and Googled "Nathan Hale". Fortunately I had remembered him correctly.

At the time, black market DVDs of American movies with Chinese subtitles could be purchased for a few RMB. When he wasn't driving, Philip watched movies and TV series like "24" and "Prison Break". We talked about protagonists of shows like we knew them. At first Philip's English skill made our discussions very basic but Philip learned quickly. He spoke a lot of half English / half Chinese sentences and I passively learned more Chinese by being able to get his Chinese from context. I began to enjoy commuting more than I ever had. One day I asked Philip what he thought the biggest difference between Chinese people and "Western" people was.  He gave an interesting answer - he said both Chinese and Westerners knew if a product was good or bad but westerner's knew "why" the product was good and Chinese were still in the process of learning. Philip often drove customers and people from our US office. His ability to read people was amazing. As time went by I realized that I trusted to Philip's opinion about people more than most of the people on my professional staff.

One day Philip drove me to the golf course and watched me hit balls before I played. For some reason, we spoke in Chinese that day. When Philip left to go back to the car, a fellow golfer who was obviously a professional person, asked me in English where I learned Chinese. I responded that I didn't speak much Chinese but that my driver was helping me. He gave me a funny look, "driver?". I said "Yes, the guy I was just talking to was my driver".  He didn't believe me until later when Philip picked me up. He said, I thought he was a member of the club that I didn't know.

Over the five years, Philip drove for us, I am sure that we learned more from him than he learned from us. I did not come close to learning Chinese as well as he learned English.

Happily, he stayed with our company and still drives for me when I am in Shanghai. I will see Philip in a few weeks. He is more friend than driver.