From then and continuing to today, I was so grateful for the happy accident that he was there that morning.
Whenever anyone refers to Mr. Guo as my driver, I bristle.
“You mean my friend? He’s not my driver,” I respond reflexively.
Calling Mr. Guo my driver reduces him to an employee, a label that doesn’t quite fit. Sure, I pay him for the service of driving the kids and me around. Still, I cannot bring myself to cast him as merely my driver. He has been a part of our lives much too long for that. He is our oldest friend in Beijing.
We met Mr. Guo in our first month in Beijing eight years ago. On a Sunday morning I sought, among the crowd of hei che drivers that gathered at our complex’s East Gate, someone to take me out of Changping. I had an address in Chinese of where I needed to go, but no idea how to get there.
I was struggling, having just moved from Shenzhen where I had a level of familiarity and competence that I missed in our new surroundings. I was desperate to get beyond the few blocks that I felt hemming me in. It was hard, too, trying to negotiate buses with my five year old and three month old.
The drivers studied the address then nominated Mr. Guo to take us. Mr. Guo knew where it was I wanted to go to in Haidian district. More importantly, he was the only one among them at that moment with a legitimate license plate, and could therefore venture inside the Sixth Ring Road. From then and continuing to today, I was so grateful for the happy accident that he was there that morning. He was a regular presence in our lives.
The kids took to him almost immediately, calling him Uncle Guo, instead of anything formal. Myles often asked to stay behind in the car with Uncle Guo while I ducked into a grocery store; I soon realized it was because Uncle Guo let him play Temple Run on his phone. Brigid showed her esteem by greeting him with an excited “shu shu!” months before she could say, “ma ma,” much to the amusement of said shu shu.
When I told him that I couldn’t find a Chinese tutor for Myles, he asked his daughter, a local schoolteacher, to help. Miss Guo was a perfect fit for Myles, coming to our home a few evenings a week. Some years later, Myles and Brigid were asked to be ring bearers in her wedding, a large banquet held out in their Ming Tombs village. Both kids were honored to participate in Miss Guo’s wedding.
Even with all the help Mr. Guo had been when we needed a ride, what had really shown me how fortunate we were to befriend this driver was a curiously timed present from him. He brought it the day before American Thanksgiving, though to him it was probably just a November Wednesday. Our household was in the throws of an unanticipated eviction and move, so we were too overwhelmed to think about celebrating Thanksgiving. I was feeling anything but thankful anyway.
But when Mr. Guo showed up with this gift, a framed embroidery of Jesus at prayer that his wife had made for us, it was a sign of friendship when we needed it. The Guo family isn’t Christian, but knows that we are, so this was a deliberate choice by them, not something they just happened to have on hand.
We were reminded there really were reasons for gratitude. Many of them were the result of meeting the only driver with the real license plate that one day.
This is an updated version of the article that originally appeared on p. 47 of beijingkids April Issue. Download the digital copy here.