Today we travelled to a virtual city within Beijing. After a security guard let our taxi through the barriers, we entered the vast and leafy campus of Tsinghua University. Several blocks of flats, villas, 23 restaurants, a whole complex of streets and parks populate the prestigious university. Amidst the 1950s Chinese architecture, we found the social sciences building and met with Wang Hui for a seminar. During an introductory talk Professor Hui referred to the recent launch of an English book series whose first issue was titled ‘What does China think?’ This question could be read as symptomatic of Western anxiety in the face of a world which no longer adapts to its long-standing hegemonic categories. But I wonder whether after Freud’s ‘What Does a Woman Want?’, and Hui’s reference to ‘What does China think?’, our anxiety towards that which can no longer be interpreted through our analytical tools could be best represented by the question ‘What does a Chinese taxi driver think?’
What is in the behaviour, in the mind and the body language of Chinese taxi drivers that we don’t really get as foreigners? How should we interpret their silences, their refusals to listen to us, to give us a smile, to give us a ride or to drive when it is raining? Who needs whom? Do they need our ‘capital’ more than we need their ‘attention’? I doubt this is the case, but what about our anxiety every time we aim to reach a destination and our imperial language proves to be so insufficient? Is this a metaphor of our new condition as western citizens in a global world that far exceeds our own hermeneutics?
Within every city lives a different kind of taxi driver and within every kind of taxi driver lies a different conception of the world. You cannot really understand England if you have never gone through the hair-raising experience of a Friday night London cab; you cannot understand Italy if you have never gone through the cheating experience of a Roman taxi; you cannot understand Egypt if you have never gone through the Baroque experience of a taxi in Cairo, with its pink carpet on the instrument panel and the horn playing the Godfather soundtrack. You certainly cannot understand what China thinks if you have never gone through the dis-orienting experience of a Beijing taxi driver. The time has arrived to rethink the tension between citizenship and orientalism through a new anthropology of the taxi driver. The lecture by Professor Isin given to Chinese undergraduates in the afternoon also made this question of dis-orienting central. Repertoires of action were deployed for inclusion as well as the transformation of rights regimes, but he also asked whether the liberal citizen fully embodies the political.
In the evening, one of us received a recommendation for a lesbian (Lala) bar from a friend of a friend. This was said to be the best Lala bar in town. We were told it was located in a hotel on other side of town and that people know about the bar through word of mouth. To get there we had to take a taxi. Eyes, hands, smiles help us reach our destination further beyond the ‘blah blah’. But gestures do not always help you cross the neighbourhoods of Beijing lined with skyscrapers on steroids. Getting a taxi proved futile, so we walked. The day which started very grey and cloudy gave way to bursts of thunder and lightning. Torrential rain ensued. It took us a few hours and many challenges, but finally we made it. The bar was in a hotel basement and through a labyrinth of corridor and dark rooms with large sofas and pool tables. But the place was empty. We asked the bartender if this was the 'Lala' bar but she was giggling. At this point we too were laughing at ourselves. Yet when the same action transpires and the meanings are wholly different, it is perhaps the wrong question to ask: What does China think?
- The Oecumene Team, 4 June 2013