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The language of Phelps

BEIJING -- My favorite memory from Beijing involved Michael Phelps breaking a barrier, but not in the way you might think.

I took a lot of taxis in Beijing; we all did. They were cheap and plentiful, and they offered excellent opportunities to catch a nap. This was the drill: you -- or, often, a Mandarin-speaking concierge or volunteer -- would hand the cabbie an address written in Chinese. If a third party were present, a several-minute conversation would ensue. Then the cabbie would either shake his head, indicating he didn't know the address, or he'd wave you into the car. Usually I got to my destination with no problem, though one guy tried to deliver me to a dark alley miles from my hotel. Another refused a 20 yuan bill after holding it up the light. A few drivers seemed indifferent to basic driving rules, drifting from lane to lane, though the guy whose cab reeked of pot wasn't one of them.

One consistency was the lack of conversation. The language barrier was, for me, so complete that I knew as soon as I got in a cab alone, I could expect silence. After a while I welcomed it. I enjoyed watching row after row of high-rises stream by as we flew along the ring roads. The strangely constant scenery, along with whatever flowed from the radio -- conversation, Chinese rap, a soccer game -- almost always lulled me to sleep.

Then one night midway through the Olympics, I got into a cab with a group of three friends after a dinner out. After the first two friends were dropped off, the third gave the driver directions in Mandarin to the Main Press Center. Then she got out at her stop. I took her place in the front seat -- map in hand just in case there was some confusion I could defuse with emphatic pointing -- and settled into my cone of silence.

We had been driving along quietly for about five minutes when my cabbie suddenly turned to me and blurted out, "Fe pa sa!" I glanced at him in alarm. Was he informing me he wouldn't make change for a 100 yuan bill? Was he making a restaurant recommendation? Was he expressing existential despair? I looked at him helplessly. "Fe pa sa!" he said again.

Then it hit me. "Phelps!" I shouted. "Michael Phelps!" He nodded enthusiastically and, for a perilous moment, gave the 14-time swimming gold medalist two thumbs up. "Very good!" he said. "Yes, he is very good!" I said, laughing. Grabbing the wheel again, he said, "Hello," and "How do you do?" He was taking English classes, he explained. "Do you speak Chinese?" he asked. I shook my head, but then offered the two expressions I, and every other foreign journalist here, knows: xie xie (thank you) and ni hao (hello.) He looked at me expectantly. That's it? So I tried some words a friend had taught me for "sorry", or "excuse me:" dui bu qi.

Let me say right here that no one expresses profound bafflement quite like a Beijing cabbie. I tried saying it 12 different ways, until I thought his head would explode from excessive brow furrowing. "Sorry," I concluded, in English. And I meant it. I really had intended to learn some Mandarin before I arrived in Beijing.

Thankfully my cabbie was more enterprising than I, so we had some common ground. Using the interviewing skills that had gone to waste in the Water Cube mixed zone, I grilled him. I learned he was 41, and that he had a 12-year-old daughter who plays table tennis. I learned that she was a very good table tennis player, but maybe not Olympic caliber. When I asked if he had been watching the Olympic table tennis competition on TV, he furrowed his brow again.

By then we had reached the Main Press Center, and I had to get out. I wanted to tell him that in our brief conversation he had provided me with more insight than many of the swimmers who had been herded past the media in the Water Cube that week, but I just said, "Very nice speaking to you." Smiling, he said, "Okay!" Then he drove off, both thumbs in the air.

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