Since my last post in January, I moved back home to Chicago from Beijing, my grandfather died, my uncle died, I traveled to Australia for the first time, our bank went out of business, I started training (again) for the Chicago Marathon, and my beautiful wife and I went to the beach in Mexico.
So let’s start at the beginning.
Peking International Airport
At the moment, Beijing International Airport has two terminals (a massive new terminal is under construction in preparation for the Olympics). Terminal 2 is the international terminal and also serves Air China and China Eastern – two of the largest airlines in China. Ironically, when arriving at the airport via taxi, you arrive at Terminal 2 first. Very China. When leaving Terminal 2, the cab line is generally quite organized in maze-like Disney-fashion and staffed by about 15 Chinese guys directing traffic (vehicles and people). A few cheaters aside, the taxi line at Terminal 2 loosely approximates what you would expect in Chicago or New York, although both Linda and I have had to block out someone more than once.
Terminal 1 predominately serves China Southern Airlines, the other large local airline. There is a far lower concentration of foreigners in Terminal 1 and, as a consequence, the rules are a bit different. The cab line in Terminal 1 is poorly marked – if you don’t know where it is, it would not surprise me if you have a hard time finding it. Capacity is about 15 people and I’ve rarely seen fewer than 25 people jockeying for position to get a cab.
Previous posts have alluded to the Chinese propensity to ignore international etiquette when faced with the prospect of standing in line with strangers. Our tutors explain that everyone knows that you are supposed to stand in line, but the system breaks down quickly as people attempt to get to the front, casually ignoring those of us attempting to queue up politely. The primary problem at Terminal 1(other than flouting international convention) is that the forced cab line area (the maze) is only about 15 feet long. This often results in a mass of people politely pushing and shoving at the entrance to the line. Roughly, the cab line at Terminal 1 usually looks like this:
Zhe Ge Shi Pai Dui
Upon returning home to Beijing on January 20, 2006 at approximately 7:30 PM local time, a Russian woman and I took control of the cab line at Beijing International Airport’s Terminal 1. Many of you will not understand our sense of accomplishment and feelings of tremendous satisfaction. Others will score one for the wai guo ren (foreigners). Damn straight.
That week, I flew China Southern Airlines so I arrived at the taxi stand for Terminal 1 to find a group of about 30 people that were roughly standing in line. The line extended beyond the entrance of the formal cab line by about 15 people, all of whom were politely but anxiously standing in queue. On this particular night, there were very few cabs at Terminal 1. Since Terminal 1 is actually the second of the two terminals, it always has fewer cabs than Terminal 2 – I don’t understand why this needs to be the case but I resigned myself to this reality shortly after moving to Beijing.
On this Friday evening, slowly, one at a time, cabs would arrive and cart off a passenger. In masse, we would all anxiously move forward two steps, stop, and look anxiously for the next cab to come around the corner. Cabs were arriving approximately 1 every 45 to 60 seconds.
The cab line began to grow quickly as flights arrived faster than taxi cabs. A Western woman and her son had taken position two people behind me. At this point, I was about 10 people short of the safety provided by the metal bars clearly marking the cab line. From experience, I recognized this to be about the worst possible position in which to find myself. I was too far away to utilize my size advantage when things began to break down but, equally, could not with clear conscience contribute to the anarchy by pushing aside those I had patiently been standing behind.
In the span of about 3 minutes, about 50 additional people arrived for cabs. This was the boiling point. As the cab line grew longer, it now extended beyond the exit of the terminal, so as people walked out the door of the airport, they found themselves in the middle of what used to be a line. Subtly to my right, a young couple with a huge luggage cart attempted to charge forward.
‘Dui bu chi’ (Excuse me), I say. ‘Zhe ge shi pai dui’ (This is a line / stand in line).
This approach has almost always worked for me, I think because of the sheer terror created by the fact a big white guy can say something in Chinese about a line. This woman, however, was not startled and explained that she was actually standing in the second of two cab lines (or some other bullshit that involved the number 2).
‘Yi ge chu zu chi pai dui’ (One cab line). ‘Wo de yi si, nimen de er si’ (I am first, you are second).
That had the desired effect and they sheepishly took position behind me, or, possibly, they had no idea what I was saying and were just afraid.
The real assault for the front of the line began on the left, however. My right was protected by the street – to pass you were exposed to oncoming traffic. Chinese understand and respect that this is bad. Two to three people had moved to the front of the line unassaulted by my fellow travelers, and the perpetrators were too far away for me to challenge effectively.
Another man began walking nonchalantly toward the front from the left. The Western woman behind me shouts out “zhi ge shi pai dui”! The man looked at the woman and then fell back. Another assault forward by a young backpacker. “Zhi ge shi pai dui” the woman shouts. The backpacker continues forward but is then harangued by a Chinese man in front of us who says “bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla” which I hope roughly approximates “move your ass to the back and wait in line like the rest of us.”
I don’t understand Russian, but Northern China has many Russians as a result of the two countries’ shared communist history and border. The woman is talking to her 4-year old son and I simply believe they were speaking Russian and therefore assume they are both Russian – mother and son.
By this point, I am about 3 people short of the safety of the metal bars demarcating the safety zone of the taxi stand.
A full on assault begins from all sides with the young couple cleverly hooking my right leg with their luggage cart so that I can’t move without stumbling. Hopping on one leg, I push their cart into the street as the woman sneaks in front of me to the safety zone. The young Russian starts jumping up and down screaming “PAI DUI! PAI DUI! PAI DUI! PAI DUI! PAI DUI!” This draws the immediate support of those Chinese immediately around us who had attempted to maintain order. I can no longer keep up with the velocity of Chinese Mandarin being exchanged around me.
We push closer together as the young Chinese man, now separated from his female companion, struggles to regain control of the cart which is now immediately in front of a taxi, blocking traffic and causing a taxi driver to honk his horn in frustration.
The commotion draws the attention of one of the two taxi attendants who yells at the man with the cart and forces him in line behind me. The left flank is still under assault with the young Russian continuing his jumping and chanting “PAI DUI! PAI DUI! PAI DUI! PAI DUI! PAI DUI!” His mother is exchanging words with the backpacker, who has returned. The attendant moves to the left to restore order, forcing people towards the rear of what used to be a line.
I am now in the safety zone and third in line for a cab. The Chinese woman is in front of me and her male companion behind me with the cart. In the US, I would have happily stood aside. I was not in the US. They had intentionally and knowingly cut in line. I resolved that they would remain separated.
Two cabs arrived and one was assigned to the woman. Her companion attempted to roll the cart over me without speaking. Despite the size of their bags, skinny man was no match for my 92 kilos. I stood firmly as the Chinese woman looked back at me. I smiled and said “Zai jian” (goodbye). She smiled and said nothing as the taxi attendant told her to hurry up and get in the cab.
A third taxi arrives and I walk towards it as the luggage cart exits behind me. Entering the taxi, I say goodbye (zai jian) to the Russian and her son, who both smile and waive goodbye with a giggly ‘Zai jian!”