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The power of a taxi driver
Publication Date : 25-07-2012
Sometimes a taxi driver can completely ruin or significantly upgrade a tourist’s impression of a country. When I was a British Council scholar at Oxford 20 years ago, my family and I had the chance to travel to Scotland by train. Upon our arrival at Glasgow Station, we took a taxi to check into the Hilton Hotel, which was reserved for us by the British Council.
Although the Hilton was in close proximity to the train station, it was not until later that we realised this since we were foreign to the area. Thus we hailed a cab and told the taxi driver our intended destination. Upon hearing the destination, however, the driver became very unpleasant. He was also extremely upset when we arrived at the Hilton because I only had a 20-pound bill.
When I handed him the money, he literally tossed it away, cursing and swearing. He also threw the change at me violently. Although I understood the perspective of the cab driver, he completely ruined the image of Glasgow for my family and me.
Similarly, when I travelled to France the same event occurred as well. For example, when I returned to the East Station in Paris after my trip to Germany, Austria and Switzerland, I had to rush to the North Station in order to catch a train that would take me to a hovercraft bound for the United Kingdom. Though the two train stations were very close to each other, I unknowingly hailed a cab, ignorant again of the area. When I entered into the cab and told the French taxi driver the destination, he became very upset and roughly threw my bags into the trunk. He was so rude and unfriendly that he totally ruined my impression of Paris thereafter.
In contrast, however, there are times when tourists can have a good impression of a city by virtue of a taxi driver.
When I first went to Kyoto in the late 1980s, for example, I had a pleasant experience with a Japanese taxi driver who was very nice and courteous. When I informed the driver of my destination, “Palace-side Hotel,” he politely answered, “Yes, sir!” and bowed to me several times.
On our way to the hotel, he continued to treat me with kindness and was more than accommodating towards my needs. During that short ride to the hotel, my interaction with the taxi driver left me with a good impression of the city. To this day, in fact, I still love the friendly city and have fond memories of it. A few years ago, I revisited Kyoto and found that the taxi drivers were not as polite and friendly as they used to be. But it does not affect my love for Kyoto because my first impression of the city was so great, thanks to one friendly cab driver.
Another time I had a good interaction with a taxi driver was when I visited Sweden to promote Korean literature with poet Ko Un and novelist Oh Jong-hui. While we were in Stockholm, we were invited to a Swedish home for dinner. Since our host’s house was located in a confusing area, the taxi driver could not find it easily. Turning off the metre, the driver explained politely, “This is not your fault, so I am not charging you from this point on.”
He gently apologised and wandered around the allies for quite some time in order to locate the place. Although we were foreigners who could not speak Swedish, the driver did not take advantage of the situation. And thanks to him, we became very fond of Stockholm, even till this very day.
The taxi drivers in Seoul are better than ever. A majority of taxi drivers are amicable and kind, not discriminating against their passengers or their destinations. They offer services such as turning on the air-conditioner during the summer and even accept major credit cards and traffic cards for public transportation. Despite all of the improvements however, newspapers report that some taxis in Korea still refuse to go to a near or remote place, avoid foreign passengers, or overcharge them outrageously.
Today, few Korean taxi drivers would take advantage of foreign passengers’ language barrier or geographical ignorance and change their routes, deliberately taking longer to get to the destination to demand exorbitant taxi fares. And yet, we should eradicate those taxi drivers, if any, who might damage the foreigners’ first impression of Seoul and devastate the image of Korea.
It is safe to say that taxi drivers are the face of the country. Taxi drivers are oftentimes the first people tourists come into contact with in a foreign country after passing through customs and the entry inspection booth.
For that reason, a taxi driver can either significantly boost the image of his country by being a friendly, reliable driver or completely ruin the first impression of his or her country by extorting foreign passengers. South Korea has millions of tourists every year and we cannot let such bad taxi drivers, though there are only a few, ruin the image of Korea.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. ― Ed.