After meeting my best friend for lunch (and dinner) one weekday, we decided to split a cab home at around 6pm, because she wasn't feeling too well.
At the Raffles Hotel taxi stand we were picked up by a skinny, middle-aged Chinese cab driver who bore a jittery resemblance to Travis Bickle post-mohawk. (This one had a fully shaved head.) My friend and I were chatting throughout most of our ride until towards the end, when the driver began to sputter angrily at some inconsiderate bastard who had abandoned his vehicle at a taxi stand. He blamed the government, its urban planners, foreigners and the police for conspiring to ruin his attempt to pull up at the stand.
Pretty standard stuff, to be honest. My friend and I made mildly commiserating noises and eventually she got out. Now that he had me as a solo captive audience, the driver went on a roll... a rather terrifying one.
Let me first point out that I'm not averse to a generic "what's wrong with our government" conversation with a taxi driver. In fact, I often enjoy it. I ride in taxis a lot, because of my job, and I understand how boring and isolating it must be to ferry people around all day long - especially people who get in and bark, "International Plaza!" or "Jurong Point!" without so much as a hello or please. The journalist in me is always interested in finding out what people think about issues, and the cynic in me wants to know how fucked up they can be. When I'm in the mood, I like asking taxi drivers what they used to do for a living - many are retirees or retrenchment victims - whether they have kids, or if they like picking up tourists. I never start a conversation, but I'm usually happy to follow through with one.
But as a woman, I always have to be on guard. Not all taxi drivers are as harmless or socially inept as the one who mumbled "you're very pretty" when I handed him my fare. (His voice actually trembled.) Because of my complexion and very Chinese features, some drivers assume I'm from China until they realise I don't speak Mandarin. Then they get almost hostile at how uppity and Westernised I sound.
Take yellow Travis Bickle, for example. When my friend left, the tone of his one-way conversation changed subtly, from angsty complaining to more personal grievances. In his high-pitched Mandarin sing-song spliced with Hokkien, he went on an largely-incomprehensible rant about young people and their lack of personal responsibility: "All these young Singaporeans say they are too busy to give birth! Nonsense! Say only! Selfish, young people nowadays!" Etc.
I had long given up making any sort of accommodating noises ("mm hmm") and had turned my iPhone keypad to full volume in order to type conspicuously into it. That didn't dissuade Travis at all.
"One thing you must have in Singapore is MONEY! No money no honey, hah? All you women just want money! That's why I'm still single. No money how to go out with ger-fren? After eat dinner she will tell you, open your wallet and pay because you are the MAN! Like that how? So cannot find ger-fren loh!"
I remained silent. I knew well enough that if I were to fall for the bait and defend women by pointing out that not all of us were like that, it would form an opening for "So, you got boy-fren?" We were trapped in peak hour traffic and I didn't want to spend the next ten minutes fending off Travis, who was already by this point driving erratically and pounding on the wheel with both fists to emphasise his remarks. He really, really didn't like women.
Seeing that I wasn't responding, Travis tried a different tack. At an agonisingly long red light, he turned around and asked, "What's your dialect?"
"Eh, wa si Teochew nang also! But my mother is Cantonese so I can speak both lang-widges. Why you cannot speak Chinese?"
"Not good at it."
"You also cannot speak Teochew?"
"Let me tell you, Chinese people must speak Chinese or dialect! You are not real Chinese if you dowan to learn your own lang-widge!" More steering wheel thumping. "Teochew cannot speak Teochew, where got such thing! Xiao jie ah, you think you ang moh ah!" His thin voice almost cracked in agitated mockery at the last line.
That really pissed me off. My entire life, I have been accused of not being Chinese enough by other Chinese people. They don't realise that picking on non-Mandarin speakers just drives us further away. Why the hell would I want to embrace a culture that actively makes fun of me?
For a split second I was tempted to inform him - in the schoolyard Hokkien I know - that he was a dumb fucking cunt. And add, in English, that he only cared about "real Chinese lang-widge" because his life at the bottom rung of society was basically shit.
But I remembered that one of my girlfriends had recently gotten into an argument with a taxi driver and he had dumped her by the side of the road after screaming at her. We were on a major artery in rush hour and Travis was already swerving aggressively as he ranted. Also, thanks to my earlier conversation with my friend, he knew that my destination was where I lived.
So I shut up and let him change his own subject to how much ang moh tourists liked him (but of course he secretly despised all of them). It was truly amazing how long he could go on for without any encouragement or response from the back seat. Like he was used to people paying him no attention at all.
In the midst of all his non sequiturs and paranoid ranting, he let slip quite a lot of revealing information, all of his own accord. His parents were both dead. His two older sisters were housewives and his brother had his own family and business to run. They made it clear they didn't have time for him, so he had to take care of himself from a young age. He was a vegetarian who dropped out of school at Primary Six. He taught himself how to do basic computer repairs and for a while, worked at a company where he repaired office desktops and learnt how to speak his unique brand of sing-song English from patronising ang moh clients, who were all nothing but pompous and conniving cheats.
All that explained a lot. Fucking hell, his life really was awful. No wonder he was trying his best to feel superior - in whatever way he could - to his customers. Making women feel uncomfortable and raging against them was part of his massive inferiority complex. But in the long run of things, what did it matter? As long as he didn't start assaulting women or buy himself a Chinese bride to terrorise (he seemed too cheap for that), he was powerless. Not harmless, but powerless. I'd hit my steering wheel in frustation too, if I were him.
When we reached my block I paid my fare, giving him exact change.
"Have a nice day hor," he said. Probably being sarcastic, judging by the tone.
I smiled and murmured, "Have a nice day too."
Then I got out of the cab and walked towards the opposite block on a hunch. The taxi lingered for a while, its engine running behind me. I didn't look back. Finally, I heard the sound of tyres screeching as it turned and left the carpark. Only then did I walk over to the block I lived in.
Somewhere out there, Travis is prowling the roads, talking to himself and humming tuneless snatches of Teochew opera. I should probably have taken down his license plate number and filed a complaint. I am tired of having to watch my back all the time, of being forced to endure some asshole's loud opinions and spray-mouthed anger just because I'm female and trapped in his cab. (Travis would never have dared tell a man that he was a failure for not speaking Mandarin.) But I have to be realistic. This is Singapore, and there are a lot of Travises around, driving in exhaust-ridden circles throughout the night, gripping the steering wheels with tense bony knuckles, stomping madly on the accelerator, and never going anywhere.