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Dreams and Disillusionment

Shanghai Free Taxi: A Book Review

Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China by Frank Langfitt. New York, New York: Public Affairs, Hachette Book Group, 2019. Available on Amazon.

When I lived in Beijing I spent a lot of time in taxi cabs. I loved talking to the drivers and have often remarked that much of what I know about Chinese culture and society I learned from talking to taxi drivers. Once the meter was engaged and we were on our way, I would lob a simple question, Beijingren dou yilun shenme? (What are Beijingers talking about these days?) This led to fascinating conversations about everything from political rumors to the cost of health care to the buzz on the latest movies.

I had a favorite driver whom I would often call for airport runs or to take visitors to the Great Wall. Like me, he was a political junkie, and I knew he would give me the laobaixing (common people) perspective on national or international affairs. One of my most memorable conversations took place during one of the many iterations of a North Korean missile crisis. When he picked me up, I asked him point blank, “Your government is close to North Korea; it has influence. Why can’t it do anything about North Korea?” Without batting an eye, he turned to me and said, “because there are missiles aimed at Beijing and they only take a few minutes to get here.” I will tell you honestly that no analysis that I have heard from so-called experts has ever made as much sense as that cab driver did.

Somewhere along the line I remember having an idea that it would be fun to drive a taxi and advertise that passengers could practice their English. Of course I never did it. That was left to Frank Langfitt, an NPR correspondent in Shanghai who had the same idea and actually executed it. “Sigh,” I thought as I read it. “Another book I wanted to write!”

Shortly after arriving in Shanghai as the NPR China correspondent in 2014, Langfitt decided that a good way for him to meet people and find stories would be to be a taxi driver. Of course he couldn’t be hired by a taxi company, so he bought a car, slapped on door stickers that read (in Chinese) “Make Shanghai Friends, Chat about Shanghai Life” and offered free rides in exchange for conversations. He began by telling these stories on NPR, and eventually compiled them into this wonderful book. It is a collection of stories that gives us a glimpse of the contradictions and complexities of Chinese society, one that is always, it seems, in a state of transition.

Langfitt introduces his readers to a dozen or so passengers. As the stories unfold many of them move from being simply passengers to cultural coaches to friends. In a few cases, he even travels to the countryside during Spring Festival to be a guest at their weddings. That’s one of the things I liked most about the book—that he didn’t just drive people around and chat; he actually got to know some of his passengers and became involved in their lives, even to the point of looking them up after they’d move to Europe or the United States.

We’re introduced to a psychologist who is trying to meet the needs of troubled migrant workers and a stringer for a foreign newspaper who eventually blows the whistle on the corruption of his boss. One of his passengers turns out to be a house church pastor who invites him to attend a service at his church. In another story, a Chinese woman living in Michigan contacts him and enlists his help in finding her missing sister. My personal favorite was a used car salesmen named Beer (yes, you read that correctly).

Although the individuals are a diverse lot, there are two themes that seemed to emerge in each of their stories: dreams and disillusionment. The stories take place in the years following Xi Jinping’s rise to power and his “Chinese Dream” slogan which envisions China’s rise to great power status.  While that nation-state was being led towards a national dream, Langfitt’s friends were all pursuing their own personal dreams, whether in Shanghai or abroad, whether in riches or status. But as promises of glory that surrounded the Chinese dream began to lose their luster, so did the dreams of the individuals. As so often happens in life, no matter who you are or where you’re from, dreams are often followed by disillusionment. Because Langfitt had taken the time to befriend his passengers, he is able to tell the stories of both their dreams and their disillusionments.

My only quibble with the book is his insertion of American politics and the 2016 presidential election. It seemed gratuitous and not particularly relevant to the wonderful stories he was telling. Perhaps he was letting his own disillusionment in the outcome of that election seep in.

If you’ve lived in China (Shanghai, particularly), you’ll love this book. If you’re making plans to go to China, it’s a great introduction. If you are in neither of those categories, read it anyway. It will make you smile and you’ll learn stuff along the way!

When the book came out in 2019, NPR’s Mary Louise Kelley interviewed Langfitt. You can listen to the interview here.

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Image credit: tefl search, via Flickr.
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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