Expats behaving badly

Just because you know it, doesn't mean you can say it


You’ve likely read about this scooter mook, who earlier in the month cut across two lanes of traffic and slammed into a middle aged lady. He got into an argument with her and used some horrific Chinese – in both senses of the phrase – including “f* your mother” and shabi, which I translate below the break. She, in turn, ripped his coat and clung to his scooter somewhat hysterically, obviously angling after compensation. Neither came across particularly well, but it was the foreigner who lost all my sympathy when he opened his gob. (Although it’s a tough break to be deported for it.)

Here’s a personal vignette that illustrates what I think about this. It doesn’t reflect well on me. It’s about when I called a taxi driver a shabi.


It wasn’t even a taxi ride I needed to take – it would have taken twenty minutes to walk from Dongzhimen to my flat near Beixinqiao, but I had bags. The first cab I hailed didn’t stop. By the time the second one pulled over I was already beginning to second guess myself, but got in anyway.

He wasn’t an obliging driver. I asked him not to take Ghost Street, the congested hotpot thoroughfare, but to use a parallel route. He took Ghost Street anyway, because it was simpler. When I told him to take a left at Beixinqiao, only possible by going straight on and doing a U-turn because of day-time traffic restrictions, he needed some persuading. He was one of those drivers who emanated the bad vibes that I would feel, were it my job to drive demanding foreigners around all day for small change.

To cap it all, when he stopped and I passed him a hundred yuan note to break (guiltily), he refused it and said I should give the exact change, 13 kuai.

I don’t have any small change, I explained. Sorry.

Bu ke yi. No can do. It was clear he couldn’t break this note.

I sighed, loudly. OK, drive forwards 50 metres, there’s a newstand, I’ll break it there.

Bu ke yi. No can do. Give me 13 kuai.

I don’t have it. I only have a hundred!

Bu ke yi!

Now this really was pig-headed. He either suspected I was hiding the correct change from him, or thought I would do a runner if I went to get it. It was at this point in the conversation, despairing of a solution, that I turned away from him to think, and muttered shabi under my breath.

Shabi is a word every student of Chinese picks up, within the first year most likely and not from your teacher. It means stupid cunt. The problem is, you don’t learn it as meaning stupid cunt – you learn it as a badass swear word to pull out, a filthy arrow in your quiver for just such an argument. You might even hear Chinese friends rib each other with it, which makes it sound innocuous and funny. But it’s not innocuous. It means stupid cunt.

The cabbie reached over with a meaty hand, grabbed me by my lapel, and jerked my head close to his.

What did you call me?

Nothing, I didn’t. My only thought now was to get out of this.

What did you call me? Did you call me shabi?

I didn’t, I didn’t.

With one hand I reached over for the door, but it didn’t open. The driver had locked it. He was shaking me roughly and his other hand was held in a fist above my face.

I kept talking, quietly, watching my tone, repeating the same meaningless phrases that popped into my head to keep him mollified. I banged on the window to call over the attendant of the zone for locked bicycles next to the subway exit where we were parked. Between the three of us, we worked out a solution where the attendant broke my hundred, getting one kuai for the trouble. The driver let go of me, gave change for a twenty yuan note, and unlocked the door.

If that were the end of the story, it would have left a sour aftertaste.

But when the quarrel blew up, I realised what I didn’t twig when I first wrote down shabi in my Chinese notebook with a giggle. I realised I had just called a cabbie a stupid cunt. If I had done that in London, I would already have a black eye.

So before I got out of that cab, as every instinct was screaming at me to do pronto, I turned back to him and apologised.

Mister, you were right. I did call you a shabi. That was really rude of me. I’m very sorry.

The change was instant. He transformed from a betroot with pent-up anger issues into the very picture of civilised Chaoyang. He reached out his hand again – this time to shake mine.

Because you’ve apologised, he said, it’s alright. I was too angry. Forgive me, forgive me. I wish you yi lu ping an – safe travels.

We shook hands, and I got out with an exchange of goodbyes, and we were good.


Thinking about it later, the real reason the driver got angry wasn’t because I used shabi, it was because I was a foreigner who used shabi. I’ve heard Chinese passengers say it. God knows we’ve all heard taxi drivers say it. But for a foreigner to come from his rich country and learn your language, only to call you a stupid cunt in it? I’d get mad too. What’s worse is that he couldn’t really do anything about it, because he knew he would lose his job or worse for hitting a foreigner.

Do I still think he acted like a prick to begin with? Erm, yes, I do. Do I think it was an acceptable circumstance to call him a shabi? No, I don’t. Do I think that foreigners in China should hold themselves to different standards, as guests, and be extra careful when using a second language which they’re not as sensitive to? Yes, absolutely.

Whenever I have a run in like that now, I use shagua. It means stupid melon. The reaction is normally ni shagua! – “you’re a stupid melon!” – and a grin. Try it sometime.

For another confession by Alec Ash about his terrible manners, read: Putting your feet up