It was 5:45 PM – my arms ached – my head was throbbing from my ears popping on the plane, and I was completely lost in one of the world’s largest airports. I arrived in Beijing eager to see my classmates and board the bus to take us to our dorms, but I couldn’t find the coffee shop where my class was supposed to meet. Everyone I asked, in English and Chinese, had no idea what coffee shop I was referring to. Our instructions said the bus was leaving at 5:30, and everyone arriving after was responsible for their own taxi. I had already been walking for 20 minutes and could not find the meeting point.
Lost In Beijing
A man came up to me repeating “taxi, taxi, taxi”. I shook my head and walked away, terrified of missing my shuttle. I knew very little Chinese and didn’t know how to call a taxi by myself. After wandering in circles for 20 minutes, I walked outside to try and see if the class shuttle was there. Maybe they were boarding and had already left the meeting point?
Again, the taxi man followed me, repeating his offer for a taxi. I kept shaking my head and walking away. I was turning in circles, angry and frustrated that I had no internet, no data, and no way of finding my class. The taxi man came up to me a third time, this time offering me his phone to translate his taxi offer in English. Exasperated and ready to give up, I took the phone and rattled off my dilemma: I was a student, I couldn’t find my class, I was looking for a shuttle, did he know where Luckin Coffee was? He took the phone back and babbled in Chinese, allowing it to translate before handing it back to me.
The translation read that he didn’t know, but he could give me his phone to call my class. I wanted to break down and cry at this point from frustration. I took the phone and explained that I had no phone number – I didn’t have anything – I just needed to find this nonexistent coffee shop. He took the phone, shook his head, and grabbed my suitcase. He started walking in the direction back to the airport.
I jogged to keep up next to him, wondering where we were going. As he walked, he asked several people in Chinese along the way about the coffee shop I was asking for, but each one shook their head. He then asked me via his translator whether I had money to take a taxi. The coffee shop I was asking for didn’t exist. Again, I wanted to cry from frustration. Was this man just helping me to take my money? If I exchanged money in front of him to pay for a taxi, would he then know how much money I had to steal?
I walked with him to a currency exchange window and tried to ask for the coffee shop one more time, in English and Chinese. The lady had no idea what I was talking about. I slowly took out a small amount of the money I brought with me from my backpack in case he did try to rob me, mentally cursing myself and my study abroad program for the situation I was in. With my new Chinese money in hand, I followed the taxi man outside.
A Strange Taxi
He led me to the parking garage, down two floors, until we arrived in front of a black car. There was no taxi label on the inside or outside, just a license plate. Another man hopped out of the front of the taxi, popped the trunk, and began to place my suitcase in it. I immediately started panicking. I quickly stopped him and told the original taxi man that I couldn’t get in this car. It wasn’t marked, and it didn’t look safe.
He shook his head and pulled out an ID with the name of a taxi company. He translated back to me that it was all legit, it was a luxury taxi car, I could even use the WiFi in the car to try and call my class. Again I shook my head and took a few steps back. The scene from the movie Taken, the one where she’s stuffed into a black car and whisked away to a brothel across the city, flashed before my eyes. Was human trafficking students a thing in China? Where would he take me? How would anyone find me if I left?
I took several more steps back and almost ran for it. I was not getting into this taxi. The man again shook his head, translating another message on his phone. He said I should please trust him. Chinese people are good. I could take a picture of him and the license plate of the car. I could sit in the front if I wanted. If he wanted to hurt me he would have done so already. Could I please get in the taxi? I hesitated, biting my nails and twisting my fingers. I could go back to the airport and try to find my class, or try to find a taxi that was marked. But would a marked taxi be more expensive? Would it have WiFi so I could contact my class?
The unmarked, black taxi with WiFi would have to suffice. I snapped several pictures of the license plate, his face, and the second man. I asked for all the windows to be rolled down and let my entire upper body hang out of it, in case I needed to dip and roll out. After immediately turning on my WiFi, I sent the photos to my family, and classmates, explaining what was going on.
About 5 minutes into the taxi ride, I began to relax. My driver was extremely nice. Using his phone, he asked about my study abroad program and what sort of classes I would be taking in Beijing. He asked about my major and American politics once I explained I studied Government.
We talked about the ongoing trade war, how President Trump was elected, and how presidents were elected in the US. During the first few minutes of the ride, nearly all of my upper body was hanging out of the window in case I needed to stop, drop, and roll out of the vehicle. After about half hour of talking with the driver and tracking our route to determine it was the right direction, I loosened up and let only my arm hang from the car. I was able to contact a classmate via the WiFi in the taxi to assure them I was on the way. I didn’t feel lost anymore.
Finding My Way
After about an hour, we arrived at the student dorms. There was a sign outside with the name of my university welcoming me home. I paid the taxi, thanked him several times for his patience with my anxiety and fear, and walked inside my new home for the next 27 days in Beijing, China.
I had to find my destination by putting a little bit of trust in someone else, someone who knew the city and my destination better than I did. This experience made me respect and trust the Chinese people. I don’t think I would have made the same decision in the United States. The taxi driver understood my fears and tried to make me as comfortable as possible. We talked about the differences between U.S., and Chinese politics, which helped me understand the impression of the US government as the Chinese people see it.
The taxi experience at the airport was the first time I truly felt lost without any sense of direction. I had no idea where to go, who to call, or how to get in touch with my class. Using all the caution and resources I had to try and get to my destination by myself, I was forced to make a split-second decision. My decision is definitely not applicable to everyone, but it worked for me during the time I needed it the most.