Some of Beijing's cabbies can't read pinyin. Many haven't finished middle school. A handful of younger drivers are free-spirited university graduates who don't like working in offices. They are all, with few exceptions, Beijingers, and chatting with them offers a window into the lives and minds of the human engines of our beloved city. You never know — you might just learn something from them, too.
Ding Chunchang lives on the south side. He speaks in a deliberate Beijing drawl, swallowing whole syllables and peppering his speech with street talk that he knows I won't understand. His wife runs a courtyard inn hidden in the Xuanwu alleys, where people still live and communities still thrive — despite encroaching destruction. Ding rarely drinks because he is a driver and takes his profession seriously but from time to time, he and his wife invite me to their inn for home—style zhajiangmian(炸酱面).
Ding is the wisest man in Beijing. He applies Zen teachings to stay calm during rush hour and soothes irritable passengers with Buddhist parables.
He taught me how to mix noodles. The greasy fare in lao Beijing restaurants can never hold a candle to home—cooked zhajiangmian. I arrived at the inn to a spread of purple radish, cucumber, bean sprouts, garlic and vinegar and other nutritious condiments. The noodles came, thick and white. I dumped them into my bowl and scooped sauce on top. Ding watched me carefully as I churned my chopsticks to slather the noodles in thejiang. "You must mix the noodles from the bottom with so much sauce," he said. "Watch me." Taking my bowl, he dug the chopsticks to the bottom of the noodles, and with a gentle turn of his wrist, upturned the mass of them, allowing the dark sauce to filter through. lt was almost like time filtering through thick strands of traffic.
"I'm laobaixing(老百姓normal citizen)," Ding said as we were eating. "I am a common man, and I wouldn't want to be powerful or famous. Do you know why?" I didn't, but I wanted to. "That George Bush — if he has a stomachache or wants to sleep late, his secretary will run into the White House and shout, 'Wake up, Mr. Bush! Today you must take care of this and that matter!' And that is the most powerful man in the world. Do you know what I do when I wake up with a stomachache? I roll over and go back to sleep."
Ding's wife carried in several bottles of beer. "Do you want more noodles?" she asked. "We can boil some more." Ding, however, had more earthy wisdom to impart. "If you have a stomachache," he said, "you must eat raw white radish. Your belly will fill up with air, and you will fart the pain out."
And also," he said, pointing to the booze, "you should never eat too much when you want to drink with your friends. Eat noodles until you are 80 percent full, and then if you are still hungry, drink the broth. That way you will feel full, but still have room for beer."
A bowl of broth later, I was content, but not stuffed. Ding chatted with us while we started into the beer. "Everyone needs a hobby. I love calligraphy. I have never studied, but it centers me." I leaned over to clink bottles with his wife and knocked a beer over. "No problem," he said as we laid newspapers over the spill.
Ding contemplated the floor. "You know" he murmured thoughtfully, "wet newspaper has the perfect texture for practicing calligraphy. Honey bring my ink and brush. I will paint while you drink." And so we chatted and toasted away the evening, as Ding's thick brush smeared over yesterday`s headlines.
A Beijing Cab Driver and his mysterious oriental wisdom