Before college, Frank Langfitt’s summer job is driving a taxi. Later, as a National Public Radio correspondent in Shanghai, he resumes his old job because “everyone talks to a taxi driver.”
When he discovers that foreigners can’t drive cabs in China, Langfitt finds a way out. His taxi is free, exchanging transportation for conversation. “In a cab,” he reasons, “no one else can hear what you say.”
Even within the glittering affluence of Shanghai, the Free Taxi is irresistible and Langfitt’s radio stories become popular. Within the cab’s privacy, passengers can be candid. Some become his friends.
When Langfitt offers a free journey during the annual migration of Chinese New Year, the five-hundred-mile drive brings him close to Ray, a young lawyer. While waiting for customers, he meets Chen, a man whose wife has a green card in California, where he hopes to join her and his daughters someday. Max, a barber who owns his salon, rides with Langfitt regularly to a senior citizen complex where he gives free haircuts to the residents. From Michigan, Crystal, a Chinese woman who follows the free taxi on NPR, asks Langfitt if he will help her find her missing sister, who disappeared near the lawless border country of the Golden Triangle. And when Langfitt, realizing the parallels between The Great Gatsby and contemporary China, uses social media to find Chinese readers of Fitzgerald’s classic, he meets Ashley, a management consultant with a privileged background.
Tracing the lives of these passengers and many others. Langfitt is given insights into Chinese society on a multitude of levels and in a variety of geographic areas. The conclusions that he draws aren’t his own but ones he has been told by the people he’s come to know. Chen, successful in his dream of reaching America, welcomes the opportunities he sees for his daughter; “America was so accepting of differences...while being a less competitive environment than China.” Ray after Trump’s election, praises the United States while saying of China, “We don’t want to tear up the system. We just want to play a more important role.” Crystal, after a fruitless search into the world of sex and violence that claimed her sister, returns to a comfortable middle-class American existence. “I never thought I would live like this. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.” Ashley rejects an enviable life in the U.S. to live in Shenzhen and work in Hong Kong, pointing out the flaw she’s found in democracy. “I think if you give people power, you have to prepare for stupidity, because most people are ignorant. That’s just the truth. They’re very easily manipulated by politicians.”
In a rich and sometimes confusing mosaic of stories, Langfitt makes one thing clear: the Chinese Dream and the American Dream are dazzlingly similar, while the cultures of each country are separated by a yawning chasm of differences. It’s going to take more than one Free Taxi to achieve the understanding that just might bridge that gap.~Janet Brown