We are living in a world running at ‘Chinese speed’: Notes from China

Scoring a taxi in the rush-hour traffic gridlock of Beijing is nearly impossible. There is no Uber in China, and I didn’t have access to Uber’s Chinese alter-ego DiDi. At 11 in the morning at the choked intersection of Wudaokou, after sweating in a caustic cocktail of a harsh sun and the black automobile exhaust for nearly half-an-hour, a taxi finally stopped.

The driver hastily waved me in. I fumbled with a note containing the address, of which I had forgotten to take the Mandarin translation. The driver didn’t understand a word of English, which is not uncommon even in the big cities of Beijing and Shanghai. I tried to explain by talking slowly, decomposing phrases into syllables, but with each passing second the driver’s restlessness grew. I was wasting his time at this peak hour.

Speech cloud

Just when I thought I will be thrown out, the driver fished out his smartphone, opened an app, and indicated me to speak into it. I hesitantly spoke, my words dissolved somewhere in an invisible ‘cloud’, and out tumbled a crisp robotic translation in Mandarin. The driver knocked his head back; he finally understood what I was trying to tell him. With the help of the Baidu’s translator, which is like Google Translate, we spoke throughout the 20-minute ride. In a foreign country, if you can interact with taxi drivers and hairdressers, however haltingly, you’ve overcome the communication barrier. Now I can finally live in Beijing, I told myself when I got off the taxi.