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Taxi driver tells me to hurry - I'm moldy tofu
By Emily Ford

I'm in a taxi, driving north to a meeting in the suburbs. It wouldn't rank in the guidebooks, but taking taxis is one of my favorite things to do in Shanghai.

I like the chance to practice my Chinese with the drivers, who chat away in their funny local dialect. I like their little rattley radios and the annoying TV screens in the back. I'm fascinated by the way every driver maintains at least one centimeter-long yellow fingernail. Sometimes they are even longer, yellow and curved like talons. "The fingernail must be for something," I think. "But what?"

Today the taxi driver is an old man with a weather-beaten face and crinkly eyes. He asks me for my name and introduces himself as Mr Zhao.

"I'm Fu Mei," I say, giving my Chinese name, which still feels a bit strange. Sometimes I think I should invent a whole new personality for Fu Mei, but then I worry her language skills wouldn't live up to the challenge.

Woman at 29

We drive along pleasantly for a few minutes. Mr Zhao keeps looking over at me. I can tell what he is thinking. Then, without warning, he strikes.

"How big are you?" he asks. I am briefly taken aback until I remember that in Mandarin "big" means old and "small" means young.

"I'm 29," I say.

"Oh, 29!" Mr Zhao exclaims. "Are you married yet?"

"No," I say, glancing in the wing mirror to see if any new wrinkles have developed since I got in the car. I can tell it is going to be a long journey.

Mr Zhao turns to me in horror. "Still not married?" he says. "At 29?"

"Oh, whatever," I think defensively. I have heard this from taxi drivers approximately 100 times before. "It's not that old," I think.

"Nope, still not married," I say brightly.

"But you have a boyfriend?"

"Not right now," I say, clenching my fists.

"No boyfriend!" Mr Zhao says incredulously, nearly crashing into the car in front as he slams on the brakes.

"Next time I'm just going to make something up," I think. "Why shouldn't Fu Mei have a boyfriend?"

"How old did you say you were again?" Mr Zhao asks.

"I'm 29," I say through gritted teeth.

In Britain 29 is, if not exactly teenaged, still reasonably youthful. In China, it's positively ancient, at least in marriage terms. Leave it until 30 and you are basically a social catastrophe. There is even a name for women like us: doufu zha, or "moldy tofu." Meanwhile, a 30-year-old man is a hua, or flower. It's a grossly unfair system, as my language teacher Meimei laments regularly between blind dates. But there's nothing you can do.

"29!" Mr Zhao says. "My daughter is 23 and she already has a two-year-old child! You need to hurry up!"

I rack my brains for a way to change the subject. I start a new conversation about how much London taxi drivers charge and watch as his eyes nearly pop out of his head. Soon, however, he is back on topic.

"What do you think of Chinese men?" Mr Zhao asks. Before I can answer, he looks me up and down and frowns.

"Actually, you are too tall for Chinese men. Chinese men bu xing. Not OK. Except maybe Yao Ming," he says.

Yao Ming is a 7'6'' (2.29m) former basketball player from Shanghai and all-round Chinese hero. "Yao Ming might be OK," Mr Zhao says."I wonder if Yao Ming's available," I think.

Mr Zhao keeps shaking his head. "29," he says sorrowfully. "29."

As we arrive at our destination I let out a sigh of relief.

"Maybe you can go on the Internet," he says finally. "There're loads of foreigners there."


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