Beijing traffic deserves every bit of its awful reputation – the short-term thinking behind the development of a car culture and a failure of planning over the years have combined to lead to the choked streets you’ll soon come to know so well. This is one reason a personal driver is such a tempting proposition here, and given that it’s fairly affordable, you’ll find many of the other foreigners you get to know here swear by (and sometimes at) their driver.
It can be a massive relief to remove the aggravation of rush hour taxi chasing, public transport or fighting your way home in your own car; and to not have to put up with the infuriating refusal of a taxi driver to take you if your destination doesn’t suit him. It’s popular and affordable, and drivers are usually extremely flexible when it comes to working hours and duties. If your daily commute takes you across the city at the busiest times, you’ll be particularly grateful to sit back and read or get some work done.
But they’re not just for commuting. A driver can ferry kids around to sports practice or music lessons, pick up teenagers after parties, wait for you while you shop, take you off to Tianjin for the day. Most are eager to make some extra money, so even if a driver doesn’t usually work weekends, if you let him know in good time he’ll be happy to take on the work. They work long hours and, like taxi drivers, are often leasing the cars, so you’re probably helping him out rather than inconveniencing him.
You’re probably looking at RMB4,000-5,000 a month, plus the cost of fuel, for an on-call driver. Depending on family size and duties, you could also consider a live-in driver using your own car. Discuss in advance whether weekends cost extra, if there are any days they cannot work, and so on. If you find a good driver, you’ll want to make sure he’s happy and not feeling underpaid and underappreciated. Finding a driver is similar to finding an ayi: look for personal recommendations first and foremost, then look at expat websites and magazines.
Cross-cultural misunderstanding is generally easy enough to move through while living in Beijing, and while this is also the case with a driver, the consequences could be more serious. This is definitely a situation where it’s very important to work out all the ground rules with your driver in advance. For example, you’ll probably want to make sure he (and it will be a he – as with taxis, there are very few professional female drivers here) doesn’t smoke in the car at any time, even when he’s waiting for you, and that he keeps the car clean both inside and out. A professional driver will be proud of his work, and may already be conscientious about things like this, particularly if he has experience driving for foreigners – but to avoid problems, leave nothing unstated. Tell him you had these problems with your driver back in your own country if you want to avoid the sense that you’re teaching him manners. Using a checklist for things like washing and vacuuming on a regular basis can be a very productive approach, and you can ask him to keep the fapiao (receipt) from when he fills up the car.
You should also discuss his approach to driving safety. He’ll probably start with the mindset that priority A, B and C is getting you to your destination as fast as possible. If you take the time to explain that you are most interested in a smooth, safe drive, particularly if you have children, and that you are going to be much more unhappy with aggressive driving than occasional lateness, both you and he will feel more secure (and you can feel you’re doing your part to improve the civility of Beijing traffic!) In the same spirit, you can consider asking him to avoid sounding his horn and to resist pushing through pedestrians when turning right on red (a legal but abused manoeuvre here).
Make it clear that wearing seatbelts is a must for both him and you, and that he insist your children wear them when you’re not there. This is easier now that seatbelts are also mandatory in taxis here – there was a time when taxi drivers were insulted if you tried to use yours.
Remember that the driver spends most of his life in the car, whether it belongs to you, him or the company he works for, so go easy on him. He’ll probably end up eating and drinking in the car, and he’ll need something to read and somewhere to keep his cigarettes for when he steps out for a smoke. Ultimately, the point is communication. Don’t assume that certain things are understood, and don’t assume the driver is to blame if he does something you dislike but which you have not discussed.
In terms of communication, an experienced driver will probably speak a few English words, enough to understand locations and times, whether to wait or drop people off and return, and so on. Picking up the key words you’ll need in Mandarin will help a lot though, and in the early days – particularly when sorting out the details – you should work through someone who speaks the language. Having key addresses available in Chinese characters on your phone will help a lot. There are drivers who speak better English, but they’re few and far between and generally already doing very well for themselves.
As with an ayi, be aware that he may be living far from his family, or may rarely have days off to spend with them, so respect his need to be with them during national holidays, particularly Spring Festival, when if all has gone well you should show your appreciation by giving him a hong bao with about a month’s salary. Of course, holiday season may be exactly when you’d like to take a road trip with him at the wheel. Discuss this with him well in advance, making it clear that you will not be unhappy if he demurs, and there is a good chance he will be willing to make the extra money. Make sure you pay him well in this case.
With a little preparation and a good working relationship, you’ll find a driver more than worth the expense, freeing you up to spend more of your time enjoying the city and less of it figuring out how to get from place to place.