Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The Taxi Driver Game

The Taxi Driver Game

In Jakarta, I enjoy chatting with the taxi drivers. A taxi ride is the perfect opportunity for me to practise my Bahasa Indonesia and also a good way for me to learn about the geography of the country as most of the drivers are migrants from outside Jakarta. In the many hundreds of taxi rides that I've taken in the city, only once have I encountered a Chinese driver. I'm sure even many native Jakartans themselves have never met a Chinese cabbie before.

In KL, the only occasion when I would take a taxi is from the airport to home. At the airport, sometimes it is difficult to tell from the driver's appearance whether he is Malay or Chinese. Unlike cab drivers in Jakarta, those in KL are usually more reserved and do not have a habit of greeting you.

Occasionally you would meet a chatty one but that's the exception rather than the rule. They are not necessarily unfriendly, just that it is not the nature of Malaysians to open up easily to strangers. They don't even acknowledge you verbally when you tell them your destination; they'll drive away with you sitting inside wondering whether they really heard you correctly.

Often I'd end up in the backseat of an airport taxi trying to figure out whether to converse in Malay or Cantonese with the driver. During the course of the journey, I'd normally play a game with myself: I'd try to guess the driver's race by observing the things that he keeps in the vehicle.

Sometimes there are obvious clues: If there are Quranic verses pasted on the dashboard or Islamic ornaments hanging from the rear mirror, then the driver is obviously Malay.

Now, if these clues are not there, what kind of things would tell you that the driver is Chinese and not Malay? The most obvious giveaway is a calendar. Enter into any Chinese home or office, you can be quite sure you'll see so many calendars hanging on the wall. For some reason, the Chinese have an obsession with dates and numbers.

The other clues come from the appearance of the taxi itself. Malay taxi drivers like to "customize" their interiors; there's a certain neatness and homeliness about it--often you'll find lacy seat covers and decorative ornaments. Chinese taxis in comparison are sparse and functional--sometimes even untidy. You'll see pieces of receipts, coins, old newspapers and pieces of rags lying around. Chinese homes are a bit like that too--no-fuss and practical.

It is a fun game to play and it makes my ride home not so boring. There's always something that one can learn from a taxi ride.

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