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ASIA, UNFILTERED

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Top image: In the Mood for Love (2000)

In transit, as in life, the journey matters. When we spend time on transport every day, the way we travel shapes our memories and, in turn, our identity. In this 3-part series, we explore how different modes of transport have shaped our relationships in more ways than we might possibly admit.  

I was 18 when I took a taxi for the first time. There was $40 in my bank account, and I had just received a text at 12:11 in the morning. All of a sudden, I was throwing on a T-shirt and a pair of jeans, and rushing out the door.

After flagging one down, I sat awkwardly in the front seat and made small talk with the driver.

I assumed this was what people did. How could anyone possibly feel comfortable being driven around sitting in the back like some entitled person?

As we rounded a bend and came to a halt at the Esplanade, the fare hit $20. I realised I was half broke, but then she climbed into the backseat, a little drunk. 10 minutes later, we stopped at a traffic light. I got out and joined her in the back.

There was no grand, romantic finale to that night. We hung out at her void deck, and I soon found myself on the first bus home as the sun rose. I had, however, waited to do this with her since I was 15.

Now, almost 10 years later, we don’t talk anymore. But I still remember the name of the man who drove that cab and the feeling that comes with night drives; watching street lamps swelling as they come closer and then flashing by, like reminders that at certain points in your life, this is what love is.

One second it’s here and then, just like that, it isn’t anymore.

From Breakfast at Tiffany’s to On the Waterfront, cabs have always existed in movies as spaces that facilitate both vulnerability and revelation. Something about the isolation and the illusion of privacy brings out what we’re afraid to confront—whether it’s Audrey Hepburn’s insistence that she doesn’t need love or Marlon Brando’s righteous anger at having his ambition thwarted by someone he trusted.

But if you’re Asian, Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love probably resonates the most.

The film’s protagonists repeatedly sit in silence in the back of taxis—silences charged with confusion, desire, and the heady intoxication of the illicit and unspoken. These passenger seats become such potent spaces because they mirror how we too rarely ever launch into the dramatic confrontations that Western movie characters are so fond of.

Instead, we navigate our emotions wordlessly. Sometimes it’s on purpose, sometimes it’s just the uncertainty of how to even begin. Whether we’re in love or at war with each other, we remain wary of our drivers who become judge, confidant, and enabler.

Over the past few years, I’ve let arguments go unresolved for fear of having the driver overhear my petty frustrations. During particularly tense moments, I’ve taken the driver’s unwavering focus on the road for sympathy. I’ve even tried, awkwardly, to play it cool so I wouldn’t look like the loser who goes home alone after dropping a girl off at the end of a long night out.

Perhaps it’s just an Asian thing.

Yet deep down, I also know that these drivers do not give a fuck about what I do, what I say, or how I look. These drivers are and have always been symbolic manifestations of the universe’s indifference to my problems.

For all that I’ve said about passenger seats being powerfully complex domains, the reality is that our feelings towards cabs and private-hire cars are shaped significantly by how expensive they are.

Since Uber launched in 2013, it’s hurt our pockets less to drop people home as a display of chivalry or affection.

But whether we admit it, this form of a transport has always been a way of subjecting people and relationships to a kind of cost benefit analysis. Whether we’re after sex, convenience, or a chance to postpone home for a while longer, taxis and Uber rides force us to ask: “Is this person worth it?”

I once had an unspoken routine with someone, where we would share a cab home at the end of every date. She would offer to split the fare, and I would refuse. I wasn’t quite sure why I did this or what I wanted out of it, I just knew that I wanted to do it. Because she was also cheating on her then boyfriend, taxis became the only spaces where we could feel secure.

One night, she offered, as usual, to pay her share. I accepted, and that was how she knew our arrangement, entanglement—whatever you want to call it—was over.

In my experience at least, cab rides have never just been about getting from one place to another. They’re also about suspending real life; forgetting that I cannot afford to be doing this or that I should not be doing this.

And being driven around in Ubers, what I’ve always perceived as self-consciousness has often turned into excuses to avoid difficult conversations.

These days, I’ve become a lot more fond of public transport, where the number of people brings me a strangely comforting sense of anonymity. Unsurprisingly, I find that I’m saving a lot more too.

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