She spoke into a WeChat group message as she drove. Twelve other drivers were a part of the thread, chatting about who they had in their cabs, how much money they’d made that day, complaining and cackling and creating camaraderie. The woman, who did not want to tell me her name, has been driving a cab for nine years — “just for the money.”

For foreigners living in Shanghai who work in international offices — who speak English over Italian dinners, yet still feel pride in their ability to order baozi in Chinese — one of the most reliably monolingual spaces in the city is the inside of a cab. You have to speak to your taxi driver, even if you choose the bare minimum: stalling with “Ni hao, Ni hao” as you get a SmartShanghai address up on your phone. But speaking Mandarin in a meaningful way adds another layer of value to the forty kuai (~ $6) ride.

One of the most reliably monolingual spaces in the city is the inside of a cab

 

The female driver in the lively WeChat group holds a rational and consistent philosophy about her profession. She’s not worried about Didi, the ride-hailing service that beat Uber on Chinese turf. “They do what they do, we do what we do.” She has a son. “Yes, how could I not have kids? Look how old I am.” Independence is her favorite part of being a cab driver. “No one takes care of you. You take care of yourself. But that also means no one bosses you around.”

Does she feel any discrimination as a woman? “No. Everyone lives their own lives. Why should they care?”

Another female driver I spoke to, Ms. Zhang, disagrees. After taking a short break to use a public bathroom on Xingfu Road, she hurried to her parked taxi and started the engine. I knocked on the door and introduced myself; she answered tersely through a cracked window.

“Well, this job gives me relative freedom. I decide my own schedule. But I get no respect. Especially as a woman.”

Zhang was especially dismissive. Most drivers were willing, and in some cases even eager to chat. In fact, once it became clear that I was interested in talking, a lot of the cabbies tried to turn the interview over on me. One man fired away questions about my experience learning Chinese. He asked how many Chinese people lived in New York, where I’m from, and whether they were willing to speak to me in Mandarin.

An older man with a bad back, who has driven a cab for his entire adult life, said there is nothing good about his job. He complained about the dues he has to pay the cab company: 400 RMB (~ $60) every day. The four major cab companies in Shanghai — Dazhong, Jinjiang, Haibo, and Qiangsheng — all have their own policies regarding how drivers pay dues, but they all require a share.

Another driver compared me to my younger sister, Abby, who sat in the backseat. He thought she was older than me. “Meimei [younger sister] has the reddish glow of a married woman,” he said. The conversation turned toward the subject of marriage. He asked me what I think of men, and after hearing my answer, he predicted that my sister will get married before me.

“How did he know?” Abby and I asked in unison.