Ambition & Resilience: A Glimpse Into The Lives & Times Of Immigrant Cab Drivers

Ambition & Resilience: A Glimpse Into  The Lives & Times Of Immigrant Cab Drivers

Remember Dopinder from Deadpool? His immaculate chemistry with Ryan Reynolds made him quite memorable among fans. The Brown character as a taxi driver also felt really natural in the plot not because it’s based on a stereotype but because it’s true. Nearly 50% of cab drivers in New York are South Asian hailing from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan alone. The numbers are even higher in Toronto and Vancouver where 80% of taxi drivers are immigrants.

So, why is that? A common reason is that it’s hard for immigrants to find a job, especially the generation older than ours who did not have SAT and IELTS coaching, immigration consultancies, and agents to help them get comfortably settled in a new country with job opportunities at hand. A lot of people moved abroad with just hope for a better future. And when they arrived, their education wasn’t considered equivalent to the country’s academic prerequisites. In fact, many taxi drivers in Canada were doctors, lawyers and engineers in their country but when they moved they either couldn’t find jobs in their fields or didn’t meet the regulations. And they had to start somewhere.

While some look at the job as a stepping stone, others spend decades living this lifestyle. The younger students view it as a part-time gig to sustain themselves. After they graduate, they get placed in whatever job falls in their field. The older drivers are more invested in the job. They find their rhythm in it and just keep going. Some even live with roommates well into their 60s while providing for their families who are still back in their home countries.

While people driving regularly have built a community of their own over the years, the advent of Uber and Lyft definitely disrupted their lives and income. Working the extra hours with no food breaks, and trying to compete with ride-sharing companies took a toll on a lot of members of this community. Between November 2017 and November 2018, 8 taxi drivers in New York committed suicide due to their debts and financial burdens.

Last year thousands of members of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance went on a hunger strike due to the rise in the price of the medallion. A medallion is a permit that lets drivers own their own taxis. They were also considered investments which would allow them to live a decent middle-class life. But since Uber and Lyft, the market went crazy and the value of a medallion dropped dramatically. What could've been a comfortable retirement for many of these drivers turned into a nightmare.

After a month of strikes and protests, the alliance finally got millions in aid and debt relief. As part of the deal, the officials also agreed to significantly expand a highly criticized financial relief program they announced earlier. Additionally, this year Uber formed a deal with the Alliance to add taxicabs to its app in a global effort to allow customers to hail a ride. After years of struggle the lives of the cab driver community have begun to look a little less grim.

The life of a cabbie is tough, especially as an immigrant. New York City drivers start their gruelling 12-hour shift at 4 AM every morning. It’s a hostile environment with the constant rush and travelling bumper to bumper. All the noises, the smells and sounds of the street; the experience is visceral. But the people who are in the game have come to love it in their own ways. In TV shows and movies we see a multitude of colourful stories about the Brown cabbie experience. Despite the struggles, the New York cab driver is a cultured, wise figure in cinema who lets a woman cry her heart out about her break-up after a drunk night out and can humble an arrogant Wallstreet broker. The depiction cannot be far from the truth.

The community of South Asian cab drivers in the west have given birth to a culture of their own. The world witnessed as they wore the title of a driver with such pride that the stigma around it crumbled. They became the zen masters of dodging snide race and class remarks from outsiders and their own families; an epitome of resilience and humility. I have massive respect for all the Brown uncles ruling the streets of New York, Toronto and Vancouver. They’ve set an excellent precedent of work ethic and authenticity for the next generation which has in some ways influenced our minds to choose a lifestyle that makes sense to us and brings us joy instead of the typical mindset of ‘log kya kahenge’.