Saturday, 9 November 2019

Conversations with taxi drivers: Nine

This is the ninth in a series of posts relaying conversations I have had with taxi drivers. The first of these posts appeared on 6 June 2018. 

25 September

Caught a cab from Broadway outside the University of Technology, Sydney. I was going home and it was late in the afternoon. The driver and I started talking after he said something about the prime minister. It happened in the following way.

A car in front was sitting in two lanes and my driver couldn’t move forward to the lights, which were red. He said aloud, as though to the driver in front of us who, naturally, couldn’t hear what he was saying: “Keep moving!” The car ahead of us was stationary, so was impeding the movement of our cab. “Keep the country moving!” he went on, aloud. “Like Scott Morrison said.” In the end the little car in front moved forward and took a lane that would allow it to turn right into Darling Drive.

The radio in our cab was tuned to a commercial station and the news was on. I asked the driver if he liked Morrison, the Australian PM. He said he did adding, with a wry smile and with a twinkle in his eye as he angled his face in my direction, “And I like Donald Trump too.” As he watched the road ahead of us I asked him why he had said that and he said that Trump is, in his opinion, the only politician who can stand up to the Chinese. I looked right at him and voiced another question that I formulated on the spot: “But where are you from?” He said, “I’m Vietnamese.” I then told him I thought he was right about Trump’s stance vis-à-vis the Chinese. Just before we arrived at the intersection at Harris Street, where we were about to turn right, he added that he didn’t agree with everything Trump says.

He said that the Chinese leadership are bullies, and that the country has problems with all its neighbours: Tibet, India, Mongolia. Even the Russians, he went on, don’t like China but wouldn’t say so publicly. He was scathing of the One Belt, One Road initiative, and told me about an island in Sri Lanka he had heard about that the Chinese, he averred, had taken over from that country after the Sri Lankans hadn’t been able to pay back a loan given to them to use for development.

I put my oar in from time to time, telling the driver at one point that I had just that day had coffee with a friend who had just come back from China and who had told me that the air pollution in Beijing is terrible. (My friend had actually said, “It’s not air.”) The driver said that China was a developed nation but that its leaders don’t want to do anything about the environment. So that they wouldn’t have an obligation to take action on the environment, he said, China’s leaders were telling other nations that their country was still developing. The sentiment and the idea voiced by the driver matched exactly what Morrison had the same day announced from Chicago, where the prime minister was visiting, and they were ideas that Trump had publicly echoed.

For good measure, the driver added to his monologue another fact: that the rich people from China spend little time in their native country and live for parts of the year in other, cleaner, places (“Even in Sydney,” he carried on pleasantly), and so don’t care about Beijing’s poor air quality.

He also talked about China’s navy, spinning a tale – and I had no way to know if what he said was true or not but listened, captive, as he listed the faults of his ancestral home’s mortal enemy – about how the Chinese had bought an aircraft carrier from the Ukraine on the basis that they were going to convert it into a floating casino. Then after they had brought it back to their country they had copied it and built two more like it, “only bigger”. He added that China was still 20 years behind the US in terms of technology but that they were stealing a lot of IP, and that Chinese students studying in Western countries were part of a strategy of surreptitiously acquiring IP that others had developed.

The cab driver appeared to be delighted to have a receptive audience for his opinions, although I said hardly a word the whole time we were together, and he went on again about Trump as we came closer to my home, saying that he thought the US president would win the election in 2020. I said I thought so, too. Trump had brought the unemployment rate down, he said, and people in the Midwest only care about jobs. “When was the last time unemployment was so low?” he asked me. “Only after the war,” he gleefully answered himself. He also said that US businesspeople liked Trump because of the tax cuts he had given them, and so he felt sure they would support his campaign.

He said I have an American accent and asked me why. I said I was born in Melbourne but grew up in Sydney. “Why do you have an American accent, then?” I said that a woman I had met not long before had told me I sounded Dutch. He dropped me off in my street and I paid using EFTPOS.

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