I just now stepped out of a Singapore cab. There are many different ethnic groups in this cosmopolitan city, including Chinese (Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, etc.), Indian, Malay, and so on. The driver of this particular taxi was Chinese. He was slight of build and very high strung. He asked me what I was doing on the campus of the National University of Singapore. "Were you here to give a lecture?"
"Yes," I said, "and to do research."
"On what subject?" Since I got into the cab in front of the business school, he probably thought I was there to give lectures and do research on finance, marketing, or the like.
"On Chinese language, literature, thought, religion, and culture."
"What?" he said with incredulity.
"Yeah," I said matter-of-factly. "Mainly I teach Chinese language and literature."
"What? You know Mandarin?"
"Yes," I replied, "but I usually teach Classical Chinese."
"How is that possible?" he asked.
"It's my job, my vocation."
He was stunned.
As he drove me back to my apartment, I noticed a strangely conspicuous, handwritten sign hanging from the middle of his dashboard. In big, red characters that were easily visible from the back seat of the cab, the sign listed about ten categories of jiǎ 假 ("fake; false") individuals that he didn't like to have in his cab, including jiǎ shàngděng rén 假上等人 ("fake gentlemen") and jiǎ gāojí rén 假高级人 ("fake high class people"). But the most severe scorn of all was reserved for the last category on the list: the dreaded jiǎ yángrén 假洋人 ("fake foreigners").
When I started to read out the categories of fake persons that the cabby detested, he almost crashed the car. After he composed himself, he blurted out, "You can read that stuff?"
"Of course," I said. "That's what I do for a living." Whereupon we switched into Mandarin and there ensued a most animated discussion about why he hated all of those different types of fakers listed on the sign. Finally, we got down to the last one, the jiǎ yángrén 假洋人 ("fake foreigners"), and I asked him what he meant by that. "A 'fake foreigner,'" he said, "is a Chinese who comes into my cab and speaks English to me. A 'fake foreigner' is also a Chinese who speaks English to his / her children. Such people are beneath contempt."
"But what about the Minister Mentor [Lee Kuan Yew]?" I asked. "He doesn't really speak Chinese, does he? Is he a 'fake foreigner'?"
The cabdriver very quickly changed the topic (it is against the law in Singapore to slander the Minister Mentor). Not wanting to get the cabby in trouble, but still wishing to urge him not to be so unremittingly negative, I suggested, "Why don't you put up a new category on your list, the zhēn yángrén 真洋人 ('true foreigner')? Am I not a 'true foreigner'?"
He looked at me with wide open eyes, thought for a moment, then laughed (I felt triumphant in getting him to crack a smile), and exclaimed, "Nope! You're a jiǎ huárén ('fake Chinese')!"
Whereupon we reached my apartment and I got out of the taxi. "Have a good day," he shouted out merrily — in English.