Traveling observations, first half of 2007

Most cab drivers in big cities in the US are foreign born. I’ve taken taxi rides to and from airports a few times this year. Only once did I encounter an American born driver. He is African-American. I assume he was born here, since I didn’t ask. The rest were born in Uganda, India, Nepal, Serbia, Romania, Puerto Rico, Turkey, Cameroon, and other countries. When I am not tired and the mood is right, I usually try to strike a friendly conversation with the driver. I also understand that they might be tired of answering “where are you from” questions already, so I don’t always ask that question.

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During a two-week hotel stay in a Washington DC suburb, I used the hotel shuttle bus extensively. The driver’s name is Jerry. I think that might be his adapted English name. We always talk during the rides. He seems to be a nice fellow. I don’t agree with everything he says, but the ride was always pleasant.

Despite having lived in the US continuously for at least 14 years, I can see he still has a lot of trouble with English. Sometimes I have trouble with English too, but not as severely. Some hotel receptionists are not very friendly to him, probably because of that. During one ride, he had trouble explaining to one of the receptionists where he was. She hung up on him. Jerry then tossed the cell phone into a cup holder, and shook his head in frustration.

I asked where he was from. He told me he was from Indonesia, almost apologetically, and quickly added he was born in the US when his father worked in the Indonesian Embassy. The last time he visited Indonesia was 14 years ago. I asked gently if he ever wants to go back and visit, he paused and didn’t answer.

Jerry functions as a deacon in his church. He asked if I read the Bible and if I am a Christian. I didn’t tell him that I am an atheist, but I did tell him that I have read the Bible, although not from cover to cover. I told him that I like some passages in the Bible.

The conversation somehow turned to Islam. Jerry does not like Muslims. He says they are terrorists and they kill people. I didn’t say anything. Later on I thought I should have expressed my opinion, that there are good and bad people in every country, every religion.

The last time he gave me a ride, he knew I would fly home that day. At the end of the trip, he cautiously recommended that I read the Bible when I get back. I smiled and said “thanks”. I appreciate the way he said it, because it seemed to come out of his good will and there is no hint of any evangelical attitude. Sure, I may browse through the Bible once in a while, but I definitely want to read more on other religions. Someday I would read the Koran, because I virtually have no knowledge of it, much like I didn’t have any knowledge of Christianity when I came to the US more than a decade ago.

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The Ugandan cab driver is a nice, soft-spoken fellow. I rode with him twice. The second time I was in his car, he told me he gave ride to two brothers with guns early that morning. They brandished the gun to him, asked him to stop at convenience stores, and boasted their deeds. He was still nervous because of it when he picked me up. From my conversation with him, I thought he dealt with it very well: cool, analytical, and level-headed.

I use the same cab company quite a bit. So the next time I used it, I mentioned this Ugandan driver to a different driver who picked me up. He told me that the Ugandan driver has a Master degree in psychology or something like that from a university in Ohio.

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Lately, I noticed a few cars with Indiana license plates having “In God We Trust” on them, with American flag as background. Indiana is Illinois’ neighboring state, and there are people living in Northern Indiana who work in Chicago. So it is not unusual to see cars from Indiana. Subconsciously, I remember asking myself: Did I see what I thought I saw?

Last week I drove to Indiana for business. I can see that the “In God We Trust” plates are a fixture on Indiana highways. So my eyes were not lying to me in the past after all. I googled that on the web. It turned out the “In God We Trust” plate issue was brought up in the State Legislature before and was finally approved last year. Not only that, it is free to motorists, paid for by the state government. For other special plates, such as for arts, education, and other causes, you have to pay extra to get it.

One acquaintance, who lives in Indiana, told me that although Indiana is in the Midwest geographically, culturally it feels more like a Bible-belt state. Maybe this is one of the reasons he said that. I didn’t ask him about it, because the third person in the conversation, who is a Mormon, didn’t appear to be very comfortable with his discussions.

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One evening, a Romanian taxi driver picked me up. We had a nice conversation. I told him that I was from China. We talked a little about Nicolae Ceausescu, his life in the US, my life in the US, etc.. I commented that China and Romania were good friends when both countries were in the communist bloc.

He quipped: “Those are good ol’ times.”

We both had a good laugh.

6 thoughts on “Traveling observations, first half of 2007”

  1. Cab drivers rock. Thank you for these vignettes.

    I had a San Francisco cab driver last year. He explained that “by hurtling ourselves with great velocity through space, we can compress time” and I assented that taking the highway seemed like a perfectly reasonable route to me. He then went on babbling about how he kept looking all over but nobody had really ripe avocados in season, from any country.

    I suspect that the apartment I occupy is a device for laundering Russian mob money but I don’t ask impertinent questions.

    Happy Sunday,
    -danny

  2. fantastic post. I really enjoy reading about the US as seen through a foreigner’s eyes–not just your own, but through the other immigrants you occasionally write about. Great work!

  3. btw, I read in your previous post that you travel to San Antonio sometimes. My parents live very near there, in a town called Kerrville. I hope that my next stay there on home leave (probably summer 2008) will find you in the area as well. No good Chinese food there, but we’ll make do with some awesome fajitas!

  4. Danny got the windfall, money laundering in apartment complex, oh my 🙂 Btw, saw the windfall in your pictures. Also saw the pictures of your Dad. It looked like you guys had a great time together.

    PR, it will be great to have some fajitas together!

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