The meanderings of a recovering ex-expat with the occasional identity crisis
Unlike Jessica Tandy in “Driving Miss Daisy”, I just can’t get used to the idea of having my own Driver in China. I KNOW that in China, as in many other places in the world, owning a car or having a personal Driver is a status symbol for anybody who wants to be a somebody. And I KNOW that, with my crazy work schedule, it makes sense to have a driver to and from work, instead of lumbering back and forth everyday on the streets in the darkness with my 15-lb backpack and Fit Flops, which scream, “Foreigner here! Come and rob/maim/ridicule/glare at/gape at/seduce/swindle me!”
It’s not like I can’t afford a Driver. A Driver is mind-bogglingly cheap in China, as are most manual-labor positions. Where I’m at, a full-time Company Driver’s salary may start at US$250/month or lower. My cleaning lady charges only US$2.38/hour. A mani-pedi, INCLUDING a hand- and foot-massage, ladies - is less than US$10/set. A shoe shine is less than a dime. Getting my pants hemmed costs only US$0.63/pair (Yes, this includes BOTH pant legs, and NO, they don’t sew the pant legs and the crotch together, and NO, it’s not a ten-year-old child or helper monkey who is doing the sewing).
The cheap labor in China is wonderful – in theory – but it’s that nagging little sliver of Pacific Northwest granola, Kiva-donating, politically-correct conscience in me that tells me there’s something morally wrong in paying someone such low wages to cater to your transportation whims. So, I pretty much run errands and get places by taking the taxi or by walking.
But finding the perfect Company Driver / Handyman - someone who can make daily visits to our suppliers or chauffeur visiting clients around, as well as change the infrequently burned-out light bulb – has always been one of my greatest challenges in running my company in China.
First, there was Leo
Actually, Leo was hired primarily because we needed an HR person. Then someone (not I) had the brilliant idea that Leo would also make a wonderful Company Driver/Handyman, thereby eliminating the need to hire three different people.
At the time, nobody had thought that finding a man versatile enough to competently carry out all of his HR / Company Driver / Handyman duties was about as rare as finding a person who was equally successful and passionate about her jobs as a Pole Dancer / Financial Analyst / Beekeeper.
Maybe it was his personality, or maybe it was the fact that every time he got behind the wheel of a car he brought us that much closer to certain death, but I remember Leo as being small, nervous, twitchy, and friendless. Being HR, he was disliked by the other employees. Being a bad driver, nobody dared ride with him. Being a pathetic handyman, he wasn’t even tall enough to reach the ceiling lights to change the bulbs, while standing on the desks in our low-ceilinged office.
The last time I saw Leo – and our brand new company van – we were careening towards the China commuter ferry terminal at over 100 kilometers per hour. Leo always drove with the frenzied, desperate look of a man, who was just about to plow into a tree or the side of a building. But instead of slowing down, Leo drove even faster, perhaps thinking that he might *scare* the building or tree into giving way.
After Leo narrowly avoided a collision with a container truck five times the size of our van and clipped our van’s side view mirror, I had had enough:
“Wh-what! N-n-no, we’re so close, Miss Susan…I can take you, it’s no problem!”
“No. I’m going to get a cab.” I opened the door of the van, then deposited myself right into the middle of hectic freeway traffic.
“Oh, let me go with you, Miss Susan! These streets can be so dangerous!”
I gave Leo a look.
“Miss Susan, I will pay for the broken mirror, I will practice driving more. I promise.”
“Leo, look - I know it’s hard for someone to excel at ALL of the three jobs we require, but if you didn’t know how to drive well, then you should have told us from the beginning. You shouldn’t lie to us! It’s not just a matter of keeping your job. You are really putting all of us and yourself in danger! Plus, you don’t listen to anyone’s advice about driving. I don’t understand why you have to drive so FAST, if you don’t know how to drive that well!”
“Yes, yes, you are so right! I’m SO SORRY, Miss Susan!” Leo tried to form a smile with his trembling lips, but instead started making small mewing noises, then squinted and rubbed his eyes furiously with his small, balled-up fists.
Jesus Christ. I thought. I’m standing in the middle of a rabid freeway in China, I need to go to the bathroom, I’m late for my ferry and probably all of my connecting flights, and now I’ve made my driver cry.
“OK, Leo. Listen carefully: hail me a cab, then call Peter or Kenny to come here and drive the van back to the office. Let them do the driving. Then find us a new driver. I will email Vivian (Leo’s immediate Supervisor) and let her know. In the meantime, try and stay off the streets!“
“Oh, Miss Susan, thank you, thank you! I will do a good job and find the best driver. I will not let you down!”
But less than a week later, Leo did let me down by crashing into the median on the freeway and flipping our company van over onto its back. The van was totaled, but Leo miraculously walked away unharmed.
Well, relatively unharmed – we fired him.
And then there was Rain
Rain, our next Company Driver, was kind of like a relationship with a boyfriend that wasn’t working out. But I was reluctant to “break up” with Rain, because there were other things that were very good about the relationship. Plus, breaking up meant I’d be back “on the market” again and facing that big black void of whether I’d ever find anyone as good as or better than Rain. Finding a half-decent boyfriend, like finding a good Company Driver – was near impossible.
Rain got his name from the famous Korean singer, entertainer, artist – Rain. Like the Korean Rain, our Driver Rain was very bright and talented. Our Rain drove a car superbly and could fix a leak in the bathroom, or change the water filter of the water cooler with his eyes closed. He was affable and got along with everybody. I would trust Rain to drive me through quicksand. He was that good.
But, like that guy you’re dating – the one who’s not held a job for a decade, because he’s dedicated his life to saving whales and other mammals with blowholes that might find themselves stranded in landlocked States, like Minnesota – Rain was a slacker in the worst way.
It started innocently enough. Instead of the usual hour that it would take for Rain to drive to and from our factory, it took Rain an hour and ten minutes, then an hour and a half, then two hours…until Rain wouldn’t walk through the office door till 5:59pm. (Our office closes at 6:00pm).
It got worse. Rain’s motorcycle was constantly getting “flat tires” and other problems, so he would get to work late in the mornings. Misfortune befell his family: his son, his wife, his mother and his mother-in-law frequently took turns getting sick and needed to be taken to the hospital. Then Rain became sick. In fact, Rain constantly had a bad cold and looked sickly. Someone mentioned he was moonlighting at a bar in the evenings to pay off some gambling debt or a mistress. Someone else volunteered that Rain got herpes from a prostitute, and was trying to earn money to “cure” the disease. When the other employees got wind of this, everyone started freaking out about using the same toilet as Rain.
Finally, when Vivian couldn’t get him to shape up after repeated warnings, Rain and I had a “talk”. Actually, two talks. I so wanted Rain to have an epiphany and turn his attitude around. I thought I could save him.
In our first talk, I told Rain – among other things – that he shouldn’t insult my intelligence and make a mockery of his co-workers’ jobs by strolling into the office only one minute before it closed, after coming back from our factory. So, Rain went home, thought about it, and the next day strolled into the office ten minutes before closing instead.
In our second and final talk, Rain sat across from my desk in my small office, fidgeting. The fluorescent lights hummed faintly overhead. My computer was quietly and sadly playing “Funkytown” from an 80s internet radio station. My heart was heavy with the sentence I was going to hand down to Rain, knowing that it did both of us no good, but there was no other choice. In fact, as I sat there looking at Rain I felt it could’ve been one of my exes and I sitting in a coffee shop ruminating about Should we continue the relationship? Where is this relationship going?
Except with my ex, the relationship would continue to go nowhere after the talk, till one day after a huge fight, during which I refuse to go to AA meetings with him, as he isn’t an alcoholic, but just a drama queen – I discover on my doorstep a big black garbage bag containing half a box of unused tampons, an empty bottle of contact lens solution, ticket stubs from the last rock concert we attended, one gym sock, and assorted, mismatched Tupperware that doesn’t even belong to me.
And stapled to the garbage bag is a note – hastily written on a Chinese take-out menu in the small space where the “Seafood Specialties” section ends and the “Noodles” begins:
You complete me –
PS: Wanna go for a drink sometime?
And then there was John…
Fortunately, things were not so dysfunctional with Rain. He left quietly, and the other employees felt safe using the toilet again. But like a woman desperate to fill the boyfriend void, so that she wouldn’t have to be alone, our company went through a series of one-way, dead-end drivers.
First, there was the guy who was allergic to the “new car smell” of our new van, claiming it gave him migraines and made him unable to drive over 30 kilometers per hour. Then, there was the guy who kept trying to get an advance on his salary, so that he could pay off the shady-looking men who kept calling and visiting him at our office. Finally, there was the driver who had some sort of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, so that he had to eat something every two hours and have access to a toilet at all times. This really pissed off the other employees who had just barely reclaimed the toilet from herpes Rain and was now subjected to IBS Tom constantly hogging the bathroom and leaving his foul stench.
Just as we were about to give up, Vivian interviewed and hired John when I was out of town. When I first asked Vivian about John, she described him as “someone who wasn’t too bad and not that great…but fits our budget just right”.
John was a local – as all of our Drivers must be, in case they took off with our car – we have to know where to find them or their immediate family. John was older than all of the other drivers we’d hired before and had a 5-year-old child and wife whom he took hiking on the weekends. John was a good, solid and safe driver and had previously worked as a contractor on various jobs throughout the city, so he was also familiar with handyman work. Plus, he took instruction very well and was proactive in making sure everything was running properly. In other words, he seemed too good to be true.
About three weeks after John was hired, we were driving to the factory and had struck up a conversation about eating nutritious foods to build up the body’s immune system,. John was very much into working out and keeping healthy. In fact, he always came to work dressed like he’s going hiking, or about to scale up the side of a mountain.
“Uh… noooo. I rarely have time to cook anything.”
“Oh, my wife makes a perfect Chinese herb broth with chicken. It’s not too oily and will give you lots of energy and good circulation and chi. I will let her make some extra the next time.”
“N-n-no, John…That’s not really necessary, thank you.”
“It’s no trouble at all! She will be glad to do it. Besides, it will not be much more extra that we have to make.”
Three days later, there was a ginormous pot of Chinese herbal chicken soup on my desk. The pot was so large it occupied almost one-quarter of my desk.
”What is that?” Vivian asked when she came into my room to drop off the daily expense reports.
“John’s wife made this. Chinese herbal chicken soup.” Vivian and I stared at the pot with apprehension for a few moments.
“Hey…Vivian,” I nodded towards the pot. “Um…uh, why don’t YOU try some?”
Vivian glared at me. “It’s NOT in my job description!”
The soup turned out to be amazingly good, although I don’t know if it gave me any more or less energy than I’d normally have.
Another week passed and even Vivian was impressed. John had made a check list of all the machines and equipment we had in the office and would make regular inspections every day, or every few days. He’d even water the plants in our office, if he saw they were particularly dry. He dutifully signed off on his “Sign in” and “Check out” sheets everyday before he went out. And the best part, according to the other employees – he hardly used the bathroom.
Another few weeks passed and John asked why I don’t have a Personal Driver to drive me to and from work everyday.
“Oh, it’s not necessary. I like to walk before and after work; it really helps me think and unwind. Besides, you don’t want to be called on a short moment’s notice after hours. You’ve got your own life to live.”
“No, it’s perfectly fine, if you call me after hours. I can take you no problem. With the days getting shorter, it’s sometimes not safe for a woman to be walking in the dark so late, and you cannot always get a taxi, especially if the weather’s bad. It’s OK, Susan. Don’t worry about it. It’s just my job, and I’d be happy to do it.”
Then something slowly and strangely started to happen. Like the ugly, straggly stray cat that’s been shooed away and kicked to the curb too many times, I started to trust that the bowl of food set out for me everyday by that kind stranger will not only continue, but didn’t have any strings attached – and that a big net wasn’t going to come down on me and haul me away to the pound. In fact, I started to look forward to the convenience of being driven someplace when I wanted and where I wanted.
And for once, I was somewhat hopeful that the bottom wasn’t going to drop out on me again. That I can find a halfway-decent Driver who is as happy to be working in our company as we are to have him.
As I’m writing this, it’s after 9pm on a Friday. I’m still at work, and it’s dark and pouring rain outside. But I know in fifteen minutes John will be waiting for me downstairs in the van to take me home.
For someone who’s vowed never to have a Personal Driver, I’ve adapted pretty well, I think. And I am now even so cautiously optimistic to believe that, IF I can find the Driver of my dreams, then maybe… possibly… HOPEFULLY…in this lifetime, the man of my dreams can’t be too far behind?