The song about number 24601 keeps running through my head. No, this is not a post about Les Misérables or Jean Valjean. And there’s no analogy, unless you create one. It’s the story of Mr. Smith. Our driver might be named Li, Wang, or Liu, names as common in China as Smith is in America. So why not, right?
Mr. Smith hails from Anhui province, my father’s ancestral land. Many of the domestic workers (ayis and drivers) are non-Shanghainese and come from the surrounding countryside, small towns and rural areas. They flood to the city, in hopes of making money to support their families. Some relocate their families with them. Others leave their families behind. Mr. Smith and his parents moved to Shanghai eight years ago. He married an Anhui schoolmate two years ago and they have a one-year-old son. All five of them live in a tiny, two-bedroom, one bath apartment in Puxi. During the final walk-through of our apartment, Mr. Smith quietly commented on the tremendous size of my Shanghai kitchen, which is one-fourth the size of my American kitchen. I felt completely humbled.
Every morning Mr. Smith arrives by seven-thirty a.m. He drives The Circus to their schools (I accompany them), The Hubs to the office and me to wherever I need to go. A friend asked why we use a driver and I’d like to explain life in Shanghai. A few of our church friends have their China driver’s licenses and own their own vehicles. (However, it’s costly and the driving here is dangerous.) Others use taxis to get around. Many friends use private drivers. It seems pretentious, but it really isn’t. Or at least, I’m not pretentious. I promise. Having a driver is a tremendous blessing. The weeks before we hired Mr. Smith, we hauled everyone around town in a taxi, at least twice a day, to drop off and pick up kids’ from school or to run errands. It became expensive.
Mr. Smith doesn’t speak a lick of English. Our daily chats transpire in Putonghua (Mandarin). So far, we’ve covered the gamut of topics, from his wife’s c-section birth, mandated by socialized medicine, to the one-child policy, to corporal punishment in local Chinese schools. He seems extremely patient and kind, explaining cultural differences to us. He also wears the same clothes every single day. (This is not judgment but reflection regarding his circumstance.)
I’ve often questioned our driver about the ugly side of Chinese culture and he has questioned it alongside with me. To me, Mr. Smith represents the moral virtues of a Chinese culture before Communism took over; someone who has a moral compass, who understands right from wrong, especially in how we treat one another. Frequently, he makes comparisons of Chinese culture now versus then, when families were allowed to have more than one child, and society was more Confucian-principled. Perhaps now you understand why I’ve given him an English name. He is not formally educated beyond middle school, but he is well-read. And he espouses opinions that are contrary to those which his country has attempted to indoctrinate in him. (He has a Japanese friend. Gasp.)
We speak of politics, history, films, families, American culture, food, travel and whatever comes to mind. When he asks about my religion, I tell him I am a Christian, but I steer the conversation in another direction. As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we honor our promise to the Chinese government that we will not preach or proselytize Chinese people. However, he confides in me that his mother is a Christian, too. I smile and talk about something else.
Speaking of pretentiousness, there are expats who refer to drivers and ayis like sub-human servants. “Fire them, there are plenty out there.” “Just get another one.” “Just fire them until you find one you like.” Yes, there are dangerous or bad drivers out there, but they are still people, not dogs. Unfortunately, the communication gap creates insensitivity. The Circus and I are teaching Mr. Smith basic English so he will be marketable to foreigners when we leave China.
Mr. Smith is a gracious human being who hails from the poor countryside of Anhui province. He moved to Shanghai, hoping to improve his family’s circumstances. I am reminded that his life could have been mine. Every single day.
It’s still playing through my head, “24601.”