SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA—Everyone’s got their own story.
The other day, my sister Aileen shared an article on my Facebook timeline. Posted on Mashable, the title neatly summed up the article’s gist: “Stunning art blog tells the stories of immigrant cab drivers from around the world.”
The blog, says writer Katie Dupere, is called “Riding Up Front” and was created by a Singaporean immigrant to the US, Wei-En Tan.
The “non-profit art gallery blog” collects stories from immigrant passengers, “recapping real conversations they’ve had with their drivers, and then illustrated by artists.”
Some of the art is colorful and intense, and most show some form of vehicle, roads, urban landscapes, and people wearing all sorts of expressions—sad, happy, blank.
“Many of us,” says Dupere, “slide into the back seat of taxis and quickly bury ourselves in our phones to avoid conversation. But [Riding Up Front] is encouraging you to call shotgun and start chatting—especially with drivers of immigrant backgrounds.”
The reason Aileen told me to check it out is because she, too, collects stories of cab drivers—not to illustrate for a blog, but because it’s her way of connecting with people. The bonus is that she learns a thing or two along the way.
For safety reasons, my sister takes an Uber to and from the BART station each workday. That’s twice a day, five times a week, and sometimes on weekends if she goes out. Some ninety percent of the time, the Uber drivers are immigrants. They come from all over the world, and they each have their own story.
There was Raj, an older man who looked Arab but played Bollywood music in his car. He was well-spoken, and said that he had moved to the US five years ago to work in IT.
Instead of music, a young man from Ethiopia played a CD from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. It was a sample naturalization quiz, and he was studying so that he could pass the citizenship exam and claim the coveted blue passport. We tried answering the quiz along with him (he knew all the answers) until Aileen started asking him about himself. He told his tale, and after some time shushed my sister. “Let’s listen! Now, how many US senators are there?”
Steve was Hispanic, with a large family over here from Mexico. “You speak English so well!” he told us, and said that English was not taught in Mexican schools to the extent that it is in the Philippines, where it is a medium of instruction.
Javier had come over from Madrid three years ago. “It is hard to understand the Spanish speakers from other countries,” he said. I mentioned that I was trying to become more proficient in the language. “Learn Castilian—Spain Spanish,” he advised. “Like British English, the original version.”
Bernie, a Filipino, has had partygoers puke in his car. A female passenger of his was so wasted she forgot where she lived; Bernie had to go through her mobile phone and call her friend so that he could drop off his inebriated fare at her home, safe and sound.
All of them said the same things when it came to Uber and their lives. They drove Ubers to make more money on the side, in addition to their income in their day jobs. One fellow had a new baby, a woman from Singapore was taking nursing, a Filipino was trying to pay off his mortgage faster—all incentives to take on a sideline. Steve said his income had improved with Uber—“We used to eat chicken. Now we eat steak! Every night!”
Aileen says another theme she’s noticed that runs through all these stories is that of perseverance. To make money doing this, they said, you have to be willing to make one more trip even when you’re beat, go up to the city (San Francisco) on Friday nights to bring home the drunks from the clubs even when it’s risky, or go out on a weekend even when you’d rather stay home and rest.
One of the things that the Riding Up Front blog and my sister’s penchant for chatting up drivers have in common is the gathering of narratives that might otherwise remain unspoken. Through such means, these stories are documented.
Even if the stories are told to only one person, those tales may still get passed on. My sister tells us her Uber stories at the dinner table; here I am now telling them to you; and perhaps you might mention it to someone, somewhere.
As Aileen says, Everyone has a story. Everyone’s story has a theme in common with the rest of humanity. The more stories you know, the more you will realize that we have more that unites us than separates us.
Listen. Listen to the stories, and find your own.
Dr. Ortuoste is a California-based writer. Follow her on Facebook: Jenny Ortuoste, Twitter: @jennyortuoste, Instagram: @jensdecember