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Taxi Cab Confessions: Why Beijing Drivers Don't Speak English

09/06/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

"Wel-ah-come to BEI-jing taxi," the automated machine chimes every time I first open the door of a cab. That is the most English wai guo ren (foreigners) should expect to hear in a taxi in Beijing. Despite efforts to teach the drivers Olympic English, many say they couldn't pick it up or didn't have enough time. Some even say they're just too old.

Though I told every one of my drivers (and I've taken at least two or three cabs per day in the two months I've been in Beijing) that he or she could practice their English with me, only one took advantage. "Light turn! Leff turn! Stop!" one driver exclaimed adorably, and then corrected his pronunciation per my instructions. "Lr-light turn! Lef-tah turn! Stop!" Close enough. But the rest shied away, telling me in Mandarin that they weren't comfortable, were embarrassed, or were too afraid to because they hadn't learned enough.

Here's a sampling of translated explanations from drivers:

"Why would I learn how to say 'I am your driver'? Don't they already know I'm the driver when they get in the car?"

"I drive 12 to 14 hours a day [which seems quite standard, while others take 24-hour shifts and drive every other day]. I don't have any time to learn when I get home."

"For-bid-d....eh? It's too long."

"Why learn a new language that I can only use for two weeks?"

"It's too difficult. I'm old now. If I had studied it since I was young, it'd be a different story."

"Wel-ah-come to Bei-jing! That's it. That's all I have."