Taxi drivers ask me
Why do you speak my language?
I often tell lies
Why do you speak my language?
I often tell lies
We don't have a car here in Taiwan, so I often take a taxi to and from the office. In order to ensure that the taxi driver takes me on the most direct route to minimize the fare, I often try to bust out with my best Mandarin so that they suspect that I might just perhaps be a local. This is truly a double-edged sword because my Mandarin is good enough to make them wonder how the hell I learned it so well. When Melanie and I lived here for a few months back in 2000, I took taxis to work far more often and as a result was subjected to nearly daily questions as to how I picked it up.
At first, I would tell the story of how my mother is Chinese and my grandmother (who doesn't speak a word of English) came to live with us for a few years when I was a teenager, forcing me to speak more often - thereby giving me the authentic mainland Chinese accent I have today. Usually, this story leads to more questions about my family, my language skills, how long I've lived in Taiwan, whether or not I've been to the mainland, etc., which is all fine and dandy when I'm in a chatty mood, but just plain invasive when I'm in a pissy one.
One day, during the World Cup back in 2000, a taxi driver asked me if I was an athlete. I'm not quite sure what possessed me at that moment, but I decided to roll with it and told him that I was indeed an athlete. I figured that being a relatively tall, apparently black man in Taiwan gave me a distinct advantage in pulling this little lie off. I went on to tell him that I played for the US National team, but due to a freak training accident, I was relegated to scouting duties in Asia. He bought it hook, line, and sinker and I think he might have even been tempted to ask me for my autograph (I admit I was a little disappointed that he didn't).
After that, I developed a taste for telling outlandish lies and seeing what the cabbies would believe. At first, I stuck to claiming to be an athlete for various sports - MLS fullback, NBA point guard and even NHL goalie, but then even those stories started to get boring so I switched to juicier fare. I was a banker, a hip-hop artist, a rock star, an architect and all sorts of other occupations, although I'm proudest of the time when I convinced a guy that I was an Australian spy sent to keep tabs on the cross-straits relations between China and Taiwan.
Eventually, I left Taiwan with a proud sense of accomplishment, both professionally as well as in the role of improvisational storyteller. I really didn't have much use for telling my little fibs at that point and ultimately fell out of practice...mostly...
That brings us to the present. I've taken taxis quite a few times since arriving in Taipei, and I have thus far invariably told the truth behind my Chinese skills. Today, on the ride back home, I was suddenly given reason to once again consider going back to my prevaricating ways.
I got into the cab this evening expecting an uneventful ride home. I was a little skittish about the taxi driver striking up a conversation with me since I was in slightly foul spirits, but I wanted to get home quickly so I took the plunge and gave him my destination with a good accent. My fears were immediately realized when he started asking me why I spoke Mandarin. I gave him the shortest possible story I could (half-Chinese...nuff said) in the hopes he'd let it drop...but he wouldn't....
As we drove the 20 minutes to the flat, he started to surreptitiously draw me into a conversation. First, he asked if I was in high-tech...then asked if I came with my wife...then he asked if my parents were still in the US...then he asked how long I'd been living in Taiwan...all the usual questions. At that point, he felt he had enough information to start drawing conclusions, and made a comment on how our household here in Taiwan had so many continents represented - Asia, Europe, Africa...
...wait a second...
I'm an American.
Sure, but where's your dad from?
Isn't his family from Africa?
No - they're also from Mississippi.
Really? You're a bit dark.
Yeah. I know. But my dad's family has lived in the US for countless generations.
Oh. I get it. So your wife is from Germany, your mother is from Taiwan, and you're from the US with African ancestors.
Not exactly. Like I said - it's been hundreds of years. It doesn't really count any more. We have no idea where our family is from in Africa, but we do know they've lived in Mississippi for quite a while. We're Americans.
Have you ever been to Africa?
I wish I could say that this was where the conversation ended, but we came back around this way one more time before we got to the house.
Ever wanted to go to Africa?
Yep. Turn left here...
I think it's time to start telling lies again...