I’ve had a couple of requests for an article I wrote for a local Shanghai magazine a few years ago about getting my driver’s license. The Chinese media – even English language publications – are all owned by the Party and are managed by the Ministry of Propaganda (a group that needs some help in re-branding their title to approach a bit more obliquely their mission statement). I wrote for this publication for a number of years but was summarily fired by the good Propaganda people for (and I’m not kidding here) “writing about the behavior of the Chinese people.” I guess I was welcome to be surrounded by 1.3 billion of them, but I couldn’t write about them. In any case, one of my first columns for this magazine was one I wrote after getting my driver’s license (which is now over 15 years ago...how time flies!). I’ve had a few requests to republish that here and will do so below. You can be the judge of whether or not I should be able hang on to this blogging gig.
A wise person once said, “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.” However, I think they were wrong. Shanghai walks like a modern international city and quacks like one too…but underneath the fluffy down of its subways, Starbucks and stock exchanges, Shanghai retains the inner core of a bureaucratic nightmare, most often benign but a pain in the hind quarters nonetheless.
To support this argument, I bring as my first (and only) witness, what in English is called the “Shanghai Transportation Police Headquarters, Vehicle Administration Bureau” (what Americans would call the Department of Motor Vehicles or DMV). I ventured there yesterday to get my China driver’s license and I suspected, even before setting foot in the place, that it would result in confusion, headache and a great story. It turns out I was right on all counts.
Automobile sales are growing at a faster pace in China than almost anywhere else in the world. In bigger cities like Shanghai, rush hour moves slower than a Democratic tax refund. Not surprisingly, traffic accidents in China are increasing exponentially as thousands of new drivers hit the streets (and each other) every month. It is rumored that every day in Shanghai nearly 20 people are killed in traffic accidents. Let me repeat that in case you missed it…that is 20 people…dead…every day!
The irony of the STPHVAB office is that they are building a new elevated highway around it and drivers have to break several traffic laws to even get in the place. On the way from my office to their office, the taxi drove the wrong way on a one way street, went against two traffic lights and caught some air when we went too fast over a sewer line that had not been completely filled in. This was not an auspicious beginning to the day.
The traffic bureau office is actually a complex of about 9 buildings housing nearly 3,000 workers. Chinese government entities are famous for over-employment and under-productivity (what government isn’t?) so this was no immediate surprise. I went to the office in Building #1 where I was given a piece of paper that told me to go to Building #6. I originally thought that this first office was The Office for Telling People to Go to Building #6 but I was wrong…it was really the epicenter of the entire operation and one needed to return there after each foray to outbuildings to find out where to go next. It was, in fact, The Office of Telling People Where to Go. Now wouldn’t that be a great job??
The buildings were not numbered and I found Building #6 by looking for the most people wandering around the complex looking for Building #6, a communal, Zen-like approach to orientation. I paid a fee equal to a few dollars and got a checklist of all the rooms in Building #6 I had to go to. But first, I had to go to a numberless building across the way to get my picture taken, the results of which proved that no matter where it is in the world, everyone’s driver’s license photo looks like they were drunk, brain-dead, unemployed and destitute when they had it taken. Or maybe that’s just me. [Ed. Note: my photo - still good for another 3 years - is from when I had hair. Ain't never gonna get that back again!]
Photos and checklist in hand, I went back to the third floor in Building #6 where, upon filling out more forms and paying another fee, I was ushered into a hall with a series of rooms off of it, each room housing a different examination of some kind. But I am not talking about a simple written examination (that will come later)…these were physical examinations of all types. They took my blood pressure, did a hearing test, checked my height and weight, hooked me up to an EKG machine to confirm I had a heart and gave me an eye test (which the guy ahead of me nearly failed and—I am NOT making this up—said in frustration under his breath “I am a pilot…how can I fail an eye exam?!” I decided, then and there, to walk to Beijing the next time I had to go: I was certainly not going to fly with a chance of getting that guy as a pilot and I wasn’t going to drive either because he could be on the road on his way to work!)
They finally gave me a test where I had to pull on a chain coming out of the floor and then squeeze the handle of a machine. I am still a bit confused about that last one, how it could disqualify me: “I’m sorry, Mr. Kedl, but you have the grip strength of a six year old girl with the flu…we cannot allow you to drive.”
These tests were the most arduous part of the process, in part because there were probably 50 other people trying to complete the same checklist at the same time. A brief survey of them, however, revealed that, while they were all anxious to get their driver’s licenses, none of them actually owned a car. This is quite common and there is a Chinese phrase describing these types of people, “Ben Ben Zhu”, literally the “Group of the License” (and, by reference, ONLY a license and no car). I guess they do it because they can or because, some day, they will purchase, lease, rent, borrow, steal or be given a car. Some people collect stamps, others collect driver’s licenses.
The part of the experience then came that I had been dreading…the written examination. Who does not still get the flop-sweats remembering their written exam when they got their license at age16? When I first arrived at The Office of Telling People Where to Go, I was given, to review, a study guide of 100 questions with the correct answers and was told that 20 of them would be on my examination and I was required to pass with 80%. In between physical exams, I spent furtive moments cramming my brain with useless information I would never actually have to use (cue flashbacks to high school).
I was lucky enough to be able to take the exam in English, but it was really no help at all…both the questions and their multiple-choice answers were completely unintelligible, as if an off-the-cuff speech from George W. Bush had been translated into Swahili and then back into English: neither the original nor the two translations make any sense! I kept a copy of the study guide as a souvenir and I repeat now, for your own edification, some of the actual questions that were on the exam (in all their Chinglish-y glory!) and the answers that I wish I could have given:
Q: If you get in or out of an alley, cross a level crossing of a railway, make a sharp turn, or pass through a narrow road, a narrow bridge or a tunnel at the speed of 20 km/hr, you:
A: …are lucky to be alive. The same goes for reading this question…if you exceed a 20 km/hr reading speed, you are sure to miss the point, as I just did.
Q: What causes most accidents?
Q: If there is no causality between the violating act of the traffic accident’s party and the traffic accident, the party:
A: …will go on as planned, with even louder music and more food and drink. Being absolved of any responsibility in a traffic accident is a reason to party!!
Q: When the party of the traffic accident maintains that he refuses to accept as final, how soon may the party apply for remaintaining to the upper-class public security organs after receiving the maintaining statement of traffic accident responsibility?
A: Huh? Can you repeat the question…I was not sure if you were maintaining or remaintaining something for the upper class. Is this a trick political science question about class struggle?
Q: If convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol, to which public security organ must one apply?
A: The liver (or I guess the Shanghai Municipal Liver, in this case).
Q: In order to ensure the safety of driving, the driver with excess tiresome is not allowed to drive the car. The excess tiresome means to drive every day over...
A: …the roads I traveled to get here to take this tiresome examination.
Q: If smoking, eating or performing any other actions that would endanger traffic safety while driving, the driver of a motor vehicle should be penalized 5 Yuan, true or false?
A: Wait a minute…what? You mean that I can get pulled over for scarfing a Twinkie while driving? Well, there goes my breakfast time.
Q: When the traffic police stretches his right arm horizontally with palm of hand facing the front and with the left side of the body facing your car, that is:
A: …a signal that he is about to begin the traditional Shanghai Traffic Police Hula Dance and Fire Breathing. We recommend pulling over and watching this time-honored art form (no pictures, tips appreciated).
Q: When you are driving in a normal way, a traffic policed shows a stop indicating sign, you should:
A: This is a trick question in two ways… stop signs are intended as friendly recommendations and are not to be taken seriously and, besides, NO ONE drives in a “normal” way in Shanghai.
I passed with flying colors. OK, I barely passed with an 80% and only after begging the examiner for answers to some of the trickier questions (she did not know what “remaintaining” meant either and didn’t speak any English besides). I got another piece of paper with instructions to go to another room where I paid another fee to get another piece of paper telling me to go to another room in another building where I paid a fee to get another piece of paper to go to another room to get my completed license (an M.C. Escher painting written into a government bureaucracy…it just goes ‘round and ‘round!). However, I emerged from that building the proud owner of a Shanghai driver’s license, giving me all the rights and privileges of every other loony behind the wheel of a car.
The more attentive reader—if you have had to patience to get this far in the narrative—will have noticed that, although I was poked, prodded and examined as to my physical state and my ability to read broken English, not once was I asked to get behind the wheel of a vehicle and actually prove I could drive the danged thing. Does this sound strange to you too? It did to me too, at first; however, after further consideration, I think they are on to something. Anyone who has eyesight like a hawk, the grip strength of a bull and knows precisely when to remaintain to the proper upper-class security bureau will do just fine on the roads. No one else has actually learned how to drive here either.