An unexpected passenger
Mr. Wang woke at dawn to eat congee and fruit. He filled his tea mug and said goodbye to his wife before walking to the elevator. They lived on the 13th floor of an apartment that the government had given them after being displaced from their inner city hutong.
The apartment was on the outskirts of Beijing. It wasn’t especially nice, but it was his own. People like Mr. Wang didn’t normally own apartments. In the story of Mr. Wang’s life, he considered it a win on the whole.
Mr. Wang worked as a taxi driver, even though he didn’t have to. Years of steady work and a healthy pension ensured there would be food on the table plus some leftover. But ever since his son had moved out, he found himself lonely. He loved his wife but one person wasn’t enough to keep conversation going.
Mr. Wang’s favorite part of his job was chatting with passengers. He liked to talk with them as he drove around the city’s windy corridors and on the ring roads. He liked to speed by Tiananmen Square and tell them about how the city had changed so much in recent years.
He liked to talk with his passengers about the economy, his son, or things that he had seen on the news. They came from all over China and told him about those places. He liked to fantasize about travelling someday, even though he knew that he would most likely never leave Beijing.
By three o’clock that afternoon Mr. Wang had already done quite well, fare-wise. Then, after cheerfully bidding a family goodbye at Jing Shan park, a man in a military uniform stepped off the sidewalk and flagged his car to a halt.
Mr. Wang sat in his car, confused, sipping green tea while the PLA soldiers talked outside. They wore forest green uniforms with red lapels. He thought they looked stupid and wondered why anyone would want to be in the army when the economy had been doing so well.
Suddenly, a soldier approached Mr. Wang’s taxi and opened the rear door. Two other soldiers escorted a man in a black suit into the back of the taxi. Mr. Wang couldn’t make out much, but he did notice that the man had shiny, slicked-back black hair just like the president’s. It was a very thick head of hair and Mr. Wang approved.
“International airport, terminal three” said the man.
Mr. Wang looked back to the soldiers, but it didn’t seem as if they were going to stop him. He looked back again to his passenger, but the man held a newspaper so as to block his face.
“Terminal three” repeated his passenger.
Mr. Wang pulled away slowly and drove north, past Beihai Park and then towards the embassy corridors in the east of the city. It was close to rush hour and he didn’t want to risk getting caught up in the ring road traffic.
As he drove, he looked back every so often, trying to guess who the man was. But it was impossible for him to know because of the newspaper. Maybe it was … no … he was too fat for that. Could it be … no … he was much shorter.
As they drove past the Russian Embassy, Mr. Wang heard the rustle of the newspaper being folded.
“Shifu, can you please hurry up. I am going to miss my plane.”
Mr. Wang nearly spit out a mouthful of green tea when he saw that the man with shiny, slicked-back black hair just like the president’s was, in fact, the president.
“Sir!?” said Mr. Wang. “How could…”
“I like to ride in regular taxis from time to time. It’s good to have these types of grassroots conversations,” said President Xi.
“Really, sir! Well, thank you. I never thought I would get a chance to talk with you!” He paused for a moment before adding, “It’s really an honor sir!”
“The pleasure is mine,” chuckled the president. “Really, I enjoy speaking with my fellow comrades. It’s a breath of fresh air.”
“Oh really? I like that too. I like talking with people. Everyday I drive around the city and take them where they need to go.”
“Yes, you have an important job. Tell me, what do you think about the recent improvements to the economy?”
“Oh, sir! They are great! Yes, the improvements are great. Now I have my own apartment and a good job.”
“Yes, having your own apartment is great, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is,” said Mr. Wang, before pausing to add, “Only I do wish I could see my family more.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t get to see my son that much. He lives in another city. He moved there for his job.”
“Well, he is making good money at least right?”
“Yes, he makes good money but I never get to see him. When I call him he says he works a lot. He says he likes it but I wonder sometimes if he really does or if he is just saying that. I mean, it’s tough for children to tell their parents that they have a rotten job,” said Mr. Wang with a wave of his right hand.
President Xi paused to think. Outside of the window he saw a group of five migrant workers on the side of the road. They dug into the ground with worn metal shovels and smoked cheap cigarettes in the heat of the summer.
“I don’t spend enough time with my family either. Every time I have a free moment there is a phone call, memo, or emergency meeting which demands my attention. Sometimes I think my daughter barely knows me.” said the president.
“Ah, that’s OK, President Xi. You have a hard job. Maybe the hardest job in the world. Say, where are you flying to anyways?”
“Ah, the Philippines! I heard that is a great place to vacation.”
“Yes, but it’s political and I doubt that I will have time to leave the capital.”
They were driving fast now on the express highway towards the airport. Had it been half an hour later then the road would have been crowded, but Mr. Wang’s keen sense of direction had cut a straight line through the city.
“Say, what’s your name shifu?” said the president.
“Who, me? My name is Wang Bo.”
“OK, Wang.” He leaned forward into the front seat of the car. “How would you like to trade places with me? I drive your taxi all around the city and you go to the Philippines.” He leaned back again and smiled. “Maybe you can even find a way to take in some of that sun.”
Mr. Wang examined the president’s face in the rear view mirror. He was looking out the window and made no sign of joking.
“No, sir. Thank you, but I like my job. I like driving in my taxi and taking people where they need to go. It’s a simple job. I think if I did your job I wouldn’t enjoy it that much.”
“I see,” said the president with a nod of the head.
They sat in silence as Mr. Wang guided the taxi from the expressway into the gates of the airport’s third terminal. As they pulled up to the departure point, Mr. Wang broke the silence one last time.
“I don’t have your head of hair,” said Mr. Wang.
“Grassroots” was originally featured on the Anthill. The Anthill is a writer’s colony of stories about China, edited by Alec Ash, Tom Pellman, and Anthony Tao.
This story is based on true events