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I wrote an extra column last week. They asked me to do that because they ahd a 10th anniversary celebration and made the site free for a week. Sorry I didn’t that out to you all. It’s because we were away.

Anyhow, this tale should be familiar to you by know. This is a slightly different version and my favorite.

Next one goes up Thursday evening.

A Road Warrior’s Fight
Just to Get a License

May 4, 2006

I never thought that getting a driver’s license could ever again be as exciting as it was when I was 16. Then I moved to China.

The only adventure bigger than actually taking to the road here is getting licensed to legally do so. China is one of just five countries that don’t accept international drivers permits, along with Bermuda, Burundi, Iraq and Nigeria. Anyone wanting to drive here must get a Chinese license.

The licensing requirements change often. Not long ago, a licensed foreign driver had only to pass a driving test consisting of about 100 meters of straight-line motoring. Friends have told me hilarious tales about piling into a car with three other testers and an examiner, driving down the road a bit, stopping, switching drivers and continuing on until everyone had passed. And then there’s my friend, Titi, who arrived to find out she had to take the test in the official car, which was a manual transmission she didn’t know how to drive. After a frantic call to her husband, she puttered around in first gear, without ever shifting, and was rewarded with her license.

[gf-global] • Some tips on looking for a job overseas.

The road test is no longer required, but the new written exam is the same one that Chinese nationals take, and it is a whopper. One hundred randomly selected, computer-generated multiple-choice questions culled from about 750 you are given to study, all in badly translated English. A score of 90 passes; anything below sends you back to the drawing board, without a copy of your failed exam.

Despite all this, I couldn’t bring myself to study much. I entered the testing room at the massive Beijing Traffic and Vehicle Department to sit down at a computer almost cold, and knew I was in trouble when I had to guess on three of the first 20 questions. Almost as soon as I hit send, a frowning face spewing tears popped onto the screen, confirming what I knew. I had gotten 84 right. I waited downstairs for my wife, Rebecca, who emerged with a scowl and an 87. We left deflated but determined to try again as soon as possible. It is not a universal reaction.

Two weeks later, when we returned for our retest, we were watching an American gentleman leaving the testing room approach his Chinese driver. “I will never, ever set foot in this building again!” he said in a heavy Southern drawl. “Whatever I have to do, I will not take this test again.”

He explained that three other people from his company failed the test, so he and his co-worker studied hard for three days. He got an 87. He grunted when I said that American friends mocked us for failing. “Show them this book,” he said, waving the text with the 750 study questions around. “Then see who’s laughing.”

Indeed. About half of the questions are quite easy. You can figure out another 25%-30% with careful reading, which leaves 25% you simply have to memorize. For instance:

For an open abdominal wound, such as protrusion of the small intestine tube, we should:

A. put it back.

B. no treatment.

C. not put it back, but cover it with a bowl or jar, and bind the bowl or jar with a cloth belt.

The answer is C, and the example was chosen for its humor, not its difficulty. There are much harder questions, including nearly 50 pertaining to penalties, fines and points docked for various offenses. Most of them are not intuitive.

When a driver on probation drives vehicles loaded with explosive goods, inflammable and explosive chemical goods, highly toxic goods or radioactive dangerous goods, the penalty is __ points for each violation.

The answer is 2, the same as talking on a cell phone while driving. You also have to memorize 161 different traffic signs.

Before taking the test, one must report to “a provincial-level or higher public hospital” to take a “physical,” which for us was just a vision check, half-heartedly administered by a friendly, elderly doctor.

Of course, like many things in China, guanxi, or connections, matter. Diplomats and their spouses don’t have to take the test. They simply provide their license and get back a Chinese one, which is why one friend’s license identifies her as “John Doe’s wife.”

You can also just pay 800 renminbi (about $100) and take a handwritten test at Fesco, the government-licensed foreign employment agency. Apparently, everyone there miraculously scores a 91.

“We paid some money, I went to Fesco, took a written test and got my license,” says a Japanese national who has been driving in Beijing for two years. “I never thought I actually passed. I did not study and common sense will not work because that is quite different than Chinese driving sense.”

So different that some companies make employees and their spouses sign waivers promising not to drive in China before sending them here. Many expatriates and returning Chinese question the wisdom of driving. Even a minor accident can lead to a confusing and protracted street scene, waiting for the police to arrive while a crowd likely gathers ’round and screams at you in a language you don’t understand. Meanwhile, you can hire a driver and a brand-new 7-passenger minivan for about $1000 a month, which is not too expensive compared to the cost of car ownership in the U.S. Sedans are less.

Some of us, however, are too used to being in control of our vehicular destiny, don’t have a full-time driver and simply refuse to call a cab every time we want to go the grocery store or take the kids to a soccer game. Still, casually taking to the road requires a unique blend of desperation and thrill-seeking.

Even the sanctioned China Daily recently noted, “China’s roads are among the world’s most dangerous, with more than 100,000 people killed each year in accidents caused by reckless driving, poor road conditions and overloading of vehicles.”

And yet, if you are living here, you are on the road one way or the other, so it might as well be with you behind the wheel and your kids securely buckled in rather than floating around a seat belt-less taxi, with a driver who may well have gotten his license last week. So I forced myself to study that cursed, voluminous book and entered my retest fairly confident. I took my time and maintained my cool, finished, reread my answers, hit “send “and immediately saw a flashing smiley face. I had scored a 90.

On my way downstairs, I walked alongside a guy with a huge grin plastered across his face. “I went to four years of university… but I never stayed up all night studying until last night. This test is unbelievable,” he said in an Eastern European accent. “I flunked once but now I have passed!”

I sat downstairs waiting for my wife with a mix of elation and nervousness. After about 10 minutes she emerged with an ear-to-ear grin. I smiled back and we shared an unspoken moment of sheer joy

She had scored a 94. That was months ago. Wait until you hear some of the tales from the road.

* * *

Readers Respond

Write to me and I’ll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don’t want your letter published.

Below are selected, edited responses to my previous Expat Life column, on experiencing a sandstorm in Beijing, and visiting Hong Kong and Shanghai:

I enjoyed reading your past articles on your experience abroad, but your most recent article really hit home. I experienced China, Beijing and a sandstorm during a recent trip. The sandstorm that you wrote about was something that I never heard of, let alone experienced. I wouldn’t want to go through one of these again, but it was an interesting weather phenomenon to experience versus the typical snow storms we are accustomed to in the Northeast.

Thanks for sharing about your experiences abroad! Due to the success of this recent trip and your articles, I am looking forward to another trip to China sooner than later.

-Ric Thomann

Thanks for writing. I’m thrilled and surprised to hear that I helped influence your travel plans. There is certainly no shortage of places to visit in this vast country.

– – –

Always enjoy your columns. We lived in Saudi Arabia for 20 years and experienced a few big sandstorms like the one you described. I remember seeing a wall of sand moving towards us on a camping trip in the desert.

Regarding desertification, I heard a talk by an environmentalist who had studied both Japan and China. He said that the japanese had always valued and protected their forests – and still have them today. The Chinese on the other hand cut most of theirs down long ago. He said that in the area around the Great Wall, locals said there had never been trees there, but the historical record showed that long ago it was forested.

-Bill Plank

They are trying to reforest much of China. Hopefully it’s not too late.

– – –

We are an American family with 3 children, living in Pune, India for a year. Last week, I went to Hong Kong for a business trip, and had a very similar reaction to you – wow, modern trains! American food! No dust! I immediately emailed my kids and told them to send me their wish lists, and then wished I had brought a much larger bag as I tried to jam in bags of corn chips, pretzels, candy, and the occasional special request (pesto, horseradish for our upcoming Passover dinner, etc.). We also feel like we have a fairly nice lifestyle here, but a couple days in Hong Kong was a delightful interlude in what felt like much more familiar surroundings, even with Chinese language and a new currency to deal with. I came back and told my husband that we forget how hard it is to live here, and really should give ourselves credit.

So much of what you write about rings true for us. Please keep writing your columns – we look forward to every one!

-Cindy Carpenter

Thank you for the support. It means a lot.

– – –

Your stories of bicycle adventures, taxi rides, restaurants and pantomime really hit home for me, because my husband and I traveled to China for two and a half weeks in early December 2005. We were there to adopt our beautiful daughter Maddie, and it was truly the trip of a lifetime. We spent time in Hong Kong, Beijing, Changsha and Guangzhou, and each experience was better than the last. I know that we got a pretty sanitized view of China while we were there—stayed in 5-star hotels and were closely guided everywhere we went—but regardless, it is truly an amazing country.

I hope you and your family enjoy every moment there, and hang tough during the rough times. We can’t wait to go back to get a sister for Maddie. I look forward to reading more!

-Sara Fawcett

Thank you for the kind words and congrats on Maddie.

– – –

Your personal reflections as an expat are powerful and touching examples of our simple human adventure. (I wonder at the experiences of earlier expats and traders 100, 200, and 1,000 years ago!) Please keep sharing as much as you can.

-J. James Dobra

Thank you. I certainly intend to try.

– – –

I’m an American living in China. My wife & I have been in China (we’re University teachers) for about 15 years now, and we currently live in Wuhan. We had lived in and near Beijing for several years, back in the 1980s and ’90s, and traveled by both train and airplane to Hong Kong & Shanghai, so we were really interested to read about the same trip that you & your family made recently. When we lived in Beijing, things were much more primitive than they are now, and Hong Kong was still a British colony.

I hope you can travel to other parts of China from time to time as well.

-Thomas Boone

We have traveled a bit in the interior and look forward to doing more. We are heading to Guizhou this week during the national May Day holiday.

Write to Alan Paul at

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