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The 20-yuan Drama

Shanghai, May 12, 2013

Excited to leave Shanghai for Xian, the much-talked about historical city in Shaanxi province, I rushed down to check out. The driver was already waiting for me in the lobby, looking all stressed out. “Please check out quickly ok?”, said the guy in Mandarin. “Sure”, I replied without a distant idea why. I know I have plenty of time before the flight. After all, I have a flight to catch, not him. Any way, one cannot survive thinking too much in China. Everyone rushes forward and sometimes you just have to allow yourself to be drifted with the flow. After checking out, I hurried out to get on the 7-seater Toyota that Mr. Chen has been the proud owner of for the last 6 years, yet is still in impeccable condition. Mr. Chen has been doing this small transport business for as long as he’s remembered though he only starts owning his vehicle for the past 6 years. He works real hard to keep his family well-looked after and his only daughter in college. I’ve been using him for 2 years every time I am back in Shanghai and we always share pleasant conversations about China on the road.

All set and ready to go. I got on. The door was closed. Mr. Chen started the engine. Only then came the 20-yuan drama. A parking attendant walked over and they started a conversation. Just another one of those conversations between a driver and a parking attendant, who cares? And so I did not pay any attention whatsoever, keeping myself busy checking airport name and terminal number. All of a sudden, this conversation got really loud and unpleasant. The driver got off. They started yelling rigorously at each other. The parking attendant took out a walkie-talkie. With a Bruce Willis’s Die-Hard look, he screamed into the poor machine. “Yonghe please come immediately. Yonghe please come immediately”. I guess he was calling a security guard. “Yonghe please come. Someone is not paying the parking fee”, repeats himself numerous times. This was the first time I saw Mr. Chen in action. His face turned red, his voice harsh, his eyes those of prey-hunters making their kills. He as well yelled back, even louder. “You said it was free for 10 minutes. Told you it could just be another 2-3 minutes. 2 minutes over and you want to charge me? What bullshit!”. And on it went, back and forth, leveraging what I think a several-lifetime reservoir of discontentment, anger, hatred, and what have you. 15 minutes went past. The problem did not seem to get any where, if not worse. Conscious of my time to catch a flight, Mr. Chen backed off a bit and asked for how much. “20 yuans”, said the parking attendant. As soon as this number came out of his mouth, Mr. Chen went bezerk. If there were a 30-feet bear standing in front of him now, he would just smash it with the tip of his middle finger, let alone the 16-feet parking attendant. Fortunately then, another car pulled over and the other driver asked for direction to park. The parking attendant in a moment of distraction turned to the other car and moved a bit further from our car. Mr. Chen could not wait for a better opportunity. He quickly got on and off we went, out of the parking area, with a Fast-and-Furious move. “Man, that was close!”, said Mr. Chen. “He gotta be totally dumb to think I would pay 20 yuans for 12 minutes”. Mr. Chen went on for another 20 minutes about the incident, pouring his heart out until he noticed my absolute silence….

My mind was parked on the 20 yuans, a bit more than 3 US dollars. Since when the luxury of time is on sale for 1 yuan or 6 cents per minute? Doesn’t it sound like a cheap long-distance calling card? Let’s not debate the right and the wrong here. They are, after all, very relative concepts. Who gets to decide what’s right and what’s wrong in this world? What’s struck me is the level of intensity and violence such a small incident can turn out to be and the burden of emotional suppression these people carry with them through life, like an overflow waiting for that last drop of water. If only they could learn to journey inwards and find their goodselves, once again….

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