As I waited to take my Chinese driving examination, a roomful of test-takers stared at an endless loop of horrific deadly traffic accidents that was playing on a big-screen TV in the front of the room – the kind of things you might see on World's Wildest Police Videos or Driver's Ed class. In spite of what one might gather from watching Chinese people actually drive, the government takes its responsibility to ensure that driver's – at least in their head – know both rules of the road and the consequences for ignoring them.
While living in China, one of the things I miss about the States is being able to hop into a car and drive wherever I want to go. Now I can. It took three tries, but I now have permission to weave in and out of Chinese traffic behind the wheel of a car. I'm just not quite sure exactly when I'll get up the nerve to use it.
About half the foreigners I've told that I just got my Chinese driver's license think I'm crazy. “Why would you even want to drive in China. Driver's are insane,” they protest. And I agree. Chinese traffic is crazy. I have neither the money, nor a plan to buy a car. However, if we want to rent a car and drive out to the mountains for a day, now we won't have to worry about hiring a driver to bring us. We've heard rumors that China may soon phase out the English exam for foreigners, so we figured if I ever want to get a license, now is the time to do it.
Getting my driver's license in California was easy. I was 16. For a couple months, I took an after-school driver's ed class, studied the regulations in the DMV manual, went to the DMV armed with my birth certificate and passed a short written exam on the first try to get my driver's permit. A couple months later, after a behind-the-wheel class and nervous practice with my parents, I also passed the behind-the-wheel exam on the first try and became a licensed driver.
The process is a bit different in China, as one of our friends found out when it took him five trips all the way across town to the City's Vehicle Management Bureau（车管所 - chē guǎn suǒ) before he walked away with his license.
Unfortunately, the People's Republic of China didn't ratify the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic – an agreement allowing participating nations worldwide to honor foreign driver's licenses. So that means foreigners have to get a Chinese license in order to drive.
Thankfully, while the process certainly isn't easy for foreigners who already have a foreign driver's license, it's simpler than it is for Chinese people.
Our Chinese teacher, who just took her written driving exam, said the process for Chinese people is long. In addition to practical things like behind-the-wheel training and learning the rules of the road, she also had to spend four hours one afternoon at an intersection watching a traffic cop attempt to direct traffic. I say “attempt” because most drivers seem to whiz by, either blatantly ignoring or oblivious to the cop's somewhat difficult-to-decipher hand signals. She was surprised to find that foreigners were exempt from this step, in addition to being exempt from having to take a Chinese behind-the-wheel exam. Apparently the rules are different from city-to-city. Some foreigners we know have had to do a Chinese behind-the-wheel exam, but in Yinchuan, it isn't a requirement.
However, foreigners here do still have to jump through several extra hoops. First, there's the paperwork: first, you need an official government-translated copy of your passport and foreign driver's license. Naturally, the only place to get one of these is all the way on the other side of the city, far from where most of the foreigners live. And it take the better part of two whole afternoons to get the job done (one to drop it off, another when you return a few days later to pick it up).
Then there's the the local police clearance permit (居留证 -- jū liú zhèng). You have to go to your local neighborhood police station and pick up a paper certifying that you live where you say you live and how long you've been in China since you last left the country. The first time I went, the officer in charge of printing these out puffed away on a cigarette while he dug up all the right information in his computer, but then the station's Internet connection crashed, so he was unable to print out a copy. “Come back tomorrow.” He said. Naturally, the next day he wasn't there. Day three, a school official called on my behalf, but again he was out. It wasn't until my third trip to the Police Station that he was able to produce the small piece of paper, which he printed on the back of scrap paper. I glanced over the paper and asked if I could have an official red government “chop” on the paper, which is required when involved in any government-related activity. He sighed loudly and begrudgingly waked his supervisor, who was napping on his office couch, to ask for the key to another office. Naturally, they kept the official red stamp that marked it as a genuine government-approved document under lock and key at all times.
Then there was the health exam. In California, doctors aren't involved in the process of obtaining a driver's license. But in China, they want to make sure that you're healthy and able before entrusting the nation's roads to you. So I went with a teammate, who was also working on getting his license, to the local hospital. In the first exam, the doctor asked how tall my teammate was, wrote down what he said, then looked over at me, saw that I was a bit taller, and wrote my height as 185 cm – chopping 6 cm off of my actual height. He never actually measured either of us. Then we found our way to the next exam room: eyes. Chinese eye exam charts are designed for the illiterate. They're filled with the letter “E” placed facing four directions. You just tell the doctor which way it is pointing. The doctor decided that I could see clearly enough by asking me to read one letter covering my right eyes, then one covering my left. We also had to read a colored number on a small sheet to prove we weren't color-blind. Then we were done. Finally, we did a hearing test. The doctor, standing behind me, rang a small tuning fork next to each ear and I identified which ear it was closer to. We got the requisite approval stamps and it was finished. In and out in a relatively quick half-hour.
Filling out the paperwork needed for our applications was also tricky, because it's completely in Chinese and we don't have a class to teach us “government jargon Chinese 401.” Thankfully, we have a friend from Singapore who was able to help us navigate the forms and introduce us to the people he met during his five trips to the bureau (which, again, is all the way on the other side of town), who offered us – the only foreigners in the building – a bit of preferential treatment. When officials dragged their feet on allowing us to take the exam because it was getting a little close to the cutoff for the last test of the day, his guangxi lubed the wheels for us and got us in so we wouldn't have to make yet another long trip all the way across town just to take an exam.
After a short wait, we were able to take an English exam. From a bank of 1315 possible questions, the computer-based exam randomly selects 100. You have 45 minutes to take the exam. A passing grade is 90%.
As I reached the end of my first exam with 15 minutes to spare, I hurriedly looked back at each of my answers and decided I was certain about the answers on about 70, relatively certain on 10 and had narrowed it down to a 50-50 shot on the remaining 20 questions. I waited with my hand on the “submit” button for a few minutes before deciding there was no more second guessing.
The screen popped up. 89. Deflated, I could barely walk out of the room. My friend, who went through the whole process with me was celebrating. He'd scored 92.
Typically, after you pass your exam, you go to a cashier, pay a 10 RMB fee, then head over to the person who processed your paperwork when you first arrived at the bureau and 15-20 minutes later you walk out of the office with your driver's license. Unfortunately our Singaporean friend's guangxi wasn't quite strong enough to overcome a computer problem, which popped up as he went to his fee. So he had to come back the next day.
I crammed for a few more hours that night, finding the correct answers to a few questions I'd answered incorrectly, then went back with him.
This meant a long taxi ride across town, but I figured it'd be worth it if I was able to pass while the questions were fresh in my mind and share the cab ride with my friend.
I hit a new problem in my second trip to the bureau: they got me in too fast. While scores of Chinese people waited (it was a busy Friday) to take their exams, a friendly guard recognized me as the foreigner who failed by one point the day before and rushed me in. (I learned a new phrase to describe my anguish: 差一分 - chā yī fēn, witch means "short one point”). But in the rush to set up my exam, they forgot one thing: The foreigner needed to take the English version of the exam. I sat down, pushed the start button and saw a screen filled with mostly unfamiliar Chinese characters. I got the attention of the woman monitoring the room and explained my problem.
They rapidly grabbed my paperwork and spent the next 20 minutes trying to hunt for a translator. Our Singaporean friend had mentioned that he wound up taking the Chinese version of the test with the aid of a translator, who only translated two possible answers for each multiple-choice question, which greatly aided his ability to pass it, eliminating half of the answers. For some reason, they figured this might be easier than setting up another exam. But they couldn't find the translator. Finally, someone came back with some new paperwork and motioned me back into the testing room and sat me down. The test was already running. Three minutes had already ticked off the clock and one true/false question had been answered for me, but it was in English, so I breathed a sigh of relief and dove in. Only about 20-30 questions were repeats from the day before, but thankfully I was able to correct a couple of mistakes I'd made on the first exam. Again, I tallied up the questions I was certain I had right and those that were more questionable. Since there were again about 20 “iffy” questions, I held my breath as I hit the submit button.
Again, I walked out of the room looking at the floor. 89. Again. 差一分. I just laughed. “Can I take it again today?” I asked, remembering that our friend mentioned people taking it multiple times in the same day. “It's too late. Come back next week.” Arrghg. Next week? Naturally, it was a Friday and the office isn't open during the weekend.
So I came back. Again. The next Tuesday. After paying the 63 RMB fee for the exam, I sat down in the waiting room, where I ran into a former tutor who was also taking his written exam. Again, they started off by giving me the Chinese exam (though I made a point of asking for the English one), but I caught the mistake before hitting the start button, so it was easier for them to fix this time around. I hurried through. Again, only 20-30 questions were repeats from earlier exams. There was still a bit of guessing here and there, but when I reached the end, I felt relatively confident. I felt like only 11 questions were in the “iffy” category this time. Odds were that I'd guessed right on some of them. So I hit the “submit” button and pumped my fist when a “94” popped onto the screen.
I then went about the task of trying to sign my newly transliterated eight-character Chinese name – which I'd never written before – in a space designed for typical two and three-character names, so they could issue my license. The former tutor was surprised that I didn't have to complete additional steps like he did. He kept asking me, “Are you sure you can get it today?” I went back to the same place my friend had brought his paperwork and paid his fee, but hit a roadblock because the tutor didn't let me just follow in my friend's footsteps. He asked questions. An officer insisted that I still had more tests to take, but that if I went and talked to the supervisor, he'd sort things out. So we talked to the supervisor, who told me what I already knew: go, pay the 10 RMB for them to issue the actual license, then come back to the counter next to his with the receipt. When we did, the woman at the counter momentarily asked if I could come back the next day to pick up the newly printed driver's license, but the supervisor heard her and overruled her. “It will just take a few minutes for us to print it.” I breathed a sigh of relief sat down. Twenty minutes later, he handed me the license and I headed for home. Beats having to wait a month for it to come in the mail. Next step: finding a place to rent a car.
|Here's my brand new driver's license (with a few bits of important info edited)|