Editor's Note: NPR Shanghai correspondent Frank Langfitt once drove a taxi as a summer job. He decided to do it again, this time offering free rides around Shanghai in exchange for stories about one of the world's most dynamic cities. This is the first in an occasional series.
I've been working on an unusual reporting project this fall in Shanghai. I picked up a car and have been driving around the city offering people free rides.
It's a way to go beyond the headlines and get to know people from all walks of life to understand how Shanghai and China are changing. So far, my customers have included a migrant fruit-seller, a banker, a man who attends an underground Christian house church and a business manager at a Ferrari dealership.
I got the idea from a previous job. Before becoming a journalist, I drove a taxi in and around Philadelphia in the summers during and after college. I learned more about the city driving a cab than I had in all my previous time living there.
When I first started offering rides in Shanghai, a dynamic city of more than 24 million, I worried people would think it was crazy. After all, Shanghai is a commercial center where seemingly nothing is free.
My Chinese assistant, Yang Zhuo, had magnetic signs made for the car that say, in Chinese characters, I'm offering rides at no cost and just want to chat.
Initially, some people were hesitant to step into my black Toyota Camry, including two young textile factory workers I met this fall at a ferry stop. The women, who were in from the provinces to see the city, eyed the car uneasily. Then a man named Du who works security at a nearby yacht club stepped in and reassured them.
"It's OK," said Du, whom I'd met only moments earlier. "You can write down the license plate number. What are you afraid of?"
"Foreign friends are very friendly," he added.
The women hopped in and I drove them to the Oriental Pearl, the futuristic TV tower featured in nearly every photo of Shanghai's towering skyline. As I dropped the women off, they insisted on giving me a simple, souvenir pocket watch in exchange for the free ride and asked to pose for selfies.
'Are You A Christian?'
Later, as I drove Du to his apartment, he explained that he vouched for me because I was a foreigner. This seems counterintuitive, but being a foreigner can be an advantage in China. I met another man at another ferry stop, a pajama salesman named Chen, who explained that distrust among Chinese in big cities is epidemic.
"In today's society, when people interact with each other, everyone is on guard," said Chen, while we chatted in his spare, first-floor apartment downtown. "Everyone has a simple saying: Don't trust strangers."
Distrust in Chinese cities is probably deeper than you'd find in New York. For instance, if a Chinese person falls on the street, many people may not help — and with good reason. In the past, older people have deliberately collapsed, then blamed and tried to extort money from those who came to their aid. Chen says Chinese see many foreigners, particularly Americans, as more trustworthy.
"From a young age, Americans are taught good values," said Chen, a lean 38-year-old with close-cropped, graying hair. "Because of their education, Americans trust strangers more. They're more straightforward than Chinese."
When I first met Chen at a ferry stop amid a curious crowd that had formed around my car, he asked me if I was a Christian. I said I was, and we exchanged contacts as I often do with people I meet through driving. Over the next several months, I got to know Chen and learn a lot.
One day, he invited me to a get-together at a friend's place. When I arrived, I opened the door of the apartment to the sound of children singing hymns. In the living room, some 60 parishioners sat watching a U.S. Bible-training video with Chinese translation. An American preacher in a coat and tie relayed the story of Joseph from Genesis.
Chen estimates there are more than 700 underground Christian house churches in Shanghai. The house churches are illegal, which is why Chen didn't tell me the nature of the get-together beforehand.
The Shanghai government doesn't like underground churches, but tolerates them.
Waiting For The Wrecking Ball
Chen earns up to $10,000 a year selling pajamas, making him lower-middle-class by the standards of Shanghai, a very expensive city. Chen has a wife and two daughters, but they live in suburban Los Angeles.
The couple went there last year to have a second child, a girl, because they couldn't afford the fine for violating China's population policy. Chen's family stayed in California, mostly for the education of their elder daughter, who's 14.
Chen says she was miserable in China's pressure-cooker school system.
"Sometimes, my heart ached for the kid," Chen recalled. "Why? She always left school very late. She would eat very fast and do her homework until 10 p.m."
"Each year, her eyesight deteriorated and her personality gradually became more introverted," he added.
An ophthalmological study published last year concluded that less outdoor play and more indoor studying were associated with myopia in elementary school students in Beijing.
Chen says his daughter is much happier now, and he plans to join the family in California eventually. He even has a scheme to fund his move.
Chen lives in a prime location downtown, just a few blocks from Shanghai's Huangpu River.
Across the street from Chen's home, scavengers clear away scrap metal, and many of the buildings have already been demolished to make way for a development that will include luxury apartments.
A tower has already risen nearby. Standing outside his home, Chen points to an advertising banner, hanging from the top.
"The price of an apartment starts at over $1,000,000," he said. "If they really knock down my home, I can buy a house in California. The compensation for demolition here is more than enough to pay for a house there."
Chen is just waiting for the wrecking ball.
One of the defining characteristics of China today is anxiety. Bank surveys show most millionaires are interested in emigrating to other countries, such as the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom, to give their children better-rounded educations and cleaner air.
Until I met Chen, I didn't appreciate how much this uneasiness and uncertainty runs up and down the socio-economic ladder here. China has had an extraordinary economic run over the past two decades, and Shanghai has gone from a sleepy city to a dazzling metropolis, but it turns out even a pajama salesman is working on an exit strategy.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Our colleague Frank Langfitt, who is based in Shanghai, has been working on a pretty unusual reporting project this fall. To get beyond the headlines and into the fast-changing lives of ordinary Chinese, Frank got a car. And he's been offering free rides to people around Shanghai, acting like a taxi driver in one of the world's most dynamic cities. It's over an occasional series we're calling "Streets of Shanghai." Frank is on the line with us from NPR's Shanghai bureau.
And Frank, how did you get this idea?
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Well, you know, David, before I was a reporter I was actually a taxi driver in Philadelphia.
GREENE: You have some experience with this.
LANGFITT: I do, yeah. And this was right after college, and as I drove the city I learned probably more in that year that I did in the previous time that I'd lived in and around Philadelphia. And what I figured was, in a place like China, this was a great way to meet people from all walks of life and get a sense of how people in Shanghai and China are really changing.
GREENE: OK so you've essentially taken on a second job right now. You're being a taxi driver. How are you making it work?
LANGFITT: Well, my Chinese assistant, his name is Yang, and he had these magnetic signs made up, and in Chinese characters the signs say I'm offering a free ride and just want to chat about life. And at first, I did think people would think that this was crazy, but fortunately, Chinese are really curious and we actually have a taxi shortage in Shanghai so a lot of people are happy for free lift.
One place I like to go to find customers is ferry stops.
(FERRY HORN BLOWING)
LANGFITT: Workers and some tourists like to take the ferry, frankly, because it's cheap. So one day I met these two women at the ferry and these are textile workers from the next province over, out to see the big city. So I offered them a ride, but at first David, understandably, they hesitated to get in. Then there's this security guard from a nearby yacht club and he kind of intervenes and he tells them not to worry.
UNIDENTIFED MAN #1: (Speaking Chinese).
LANGFITT: It's OK, he says, foreign friends are actually very friendly.
So then the girls jump in the back seat and I drive them over to the Oriental Pearl. That's the futuristic TV tower you see in all the pictures of Shanghai's skyline.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Chinese).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Chinese).
So when I'm dropping them off, David - this was kind of sweet, they insisted on giving me a simple souvenir pocket watch in exchange for the free ride.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Chinese).
And then they asked to pose for selfies.
GREENE: OK, posing for selfies with these passengers who, Frank, it sounds like were at first reluctant to get into your taxi, your car. Is that because you're an American, you're a foreigner?
LANGFITT: Actually no, it's the opposite. I think they actually trusted me more. There's a lot of distrust amongst Chinese in big cities today. And I met this pajama salesman named Xiao Chen. I met him, actually, at another ferry stop and he was very good at explaining the trust issue. You know, one thing we've seen here in China - people often will not help people when they fall down on the street. They hesitate to, and that's because in the past, old people had deliberately collapsed and then tried to extort money from the people who helped them. So when I was talking to Xiao Chen, he said, you know, Chinese actually see many foreigners, particularly Americans, as more trustworthy.
XIAO CHEN: (Speaking Chinese).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Translating) From a young age, Americans are taught good values. Because of their education, Americans trust strangers more. They're more straightforward then Chinese.
LANGFITT: Xiao Chen and I exchange phone numbers, as I do with a lot of the people that I meet through the cab - they're quite friendly. And I got to know him this fall and I probably learned things about Shanghai and China that I never would've learned through conventional reporting.
So I'm back in the car now. And, you know, when I first met Xiao Chen he asked me if I was a Christian and I said I am, and he invited me to a gathering. And so now I'm heading through the tunnel under the river on the way to an apartment.
(SOUNDBITE OF GPS DEVICE)
AUTOMATED VOICE: Keep right. Then you have reached your destination.
LANGFITT: Xiao Chen greets me and we ride up an elevator to his friend's apartment and the sounds of this.
LANGFITT: It's an underground church, and children are singing hymns in a bedroom and in the living room a congregation of about 60 adults is watching a video.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: They took Joseph's coat, dipped it in the blood of an animal, then brought it to their father.
LANGFITT: David, this Bible training. There's an American pastor and he's teaching the story of Joseph from "Genesis." Now, Chen says it may be Shanghai has more than 700 underground house churches, all of them of course illegal, and that's why Chen didn't want to tell me directly - his phone's monitored. Shanghai government doesn't like underground churches but tolerates them.
CHEN: (Speaking Chinese).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Translating) The government listens to your calls. Sometimes when there's a big gathering, people from the government may come over to ask you questions about what's going on. Now they have files on us.
LANGFITT: Now, Chen makes up to about 10,000 bucks a year selling pajamas. He's lower-middle class by Shanghai standards - this is a very expensive city. Chen has a wife and two daughters but they live in suburban LA. Chen and his wife, they went there last year to have a second child - a girl - because they couldn't afford the fine for violating China's population policy. Chen's family stayed in California, mostly for the education of their elder daughter, who's about 14. Chen says she was miserable in the Chinese school system because it's such a pressure cooker.
CHEN: (Speaking Chinese).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Translating) Sometimes my heart ached for the kid. She always left school very late. She would eat very fast and do her homework until 10 p.m. Each year her eyesight deteriorated and her personality gradually became more introverted.
LANGFITT: Chen says his daughter is a lot happier in LA and eventually he plans to join the family over there. Now, he even has a scheme to fund the move. Chen lives in a prime location by the river. Now, across the home in recent weeks there have been these scavengers clearing scrap metal, and the reason is the neighborhood's going to be demolished for luxury apartments. And there's even a tower that's already gone up nearby.
So as we're standing outside his home, Chen points to an advertising banner. It's hanging from the top.
CHEN: (Speaking Chinese).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Translating) You see, the price of an apartment starts at over a million dollars. If they really knock down my home, I can buy a house in California. The compensation for demolition here is more than enough to buy a home there.
LANGFITT: So at this point, David, Chen's just waiting for the wrecking ball.
GREENE: We're talking with NPR's Frank Langfitt who's been telling us about people he's met while driving a taxi in Shanghai. And Frank, let me make sure I get this - this man Chen sells pajamas. He's an underground Christian. He moved his family to the United States so he could have two children and what he hopes will be a better education, and he plans to use compensation from the destruction of his home in China to buy a home in Los Angeles. I'm just stunned by how much you have learned from one person that you randomly met while driving this taxi.
LANGFITT: Yeah, that's what's been really fun about doing this is I'm meeting people that I otherwise wouldn't meet through regular reporting. And getting to know Chen, I thought I really got a real education from him. One thing is, we know there's a lot of dissatisfaction and uncertainty about the country's future. We've seen these surveys with most millionaires wanting to get Green Cards and emigrate, usually looking for a better-rounded education for their kids. But until I met Chen, I didn't realize how so much of this uneasiness and anxiety runs up and down the socioeconomic ladder here. And what's most striking is, when you think about it, China's had this great economic run. Shanghai in many ways is a spectacular city. But it's telling you meet a pajama salesman and find out that even he's working on an exit strategy.
GREENE: Well, I can't wait to hear about more people you meet. Frank thanks a lot, and happy driving.
LANGFITT: Happy to do it, David.
GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.