Noel Smith

11 minute read

During the near decade I lived in China, there wasn’t much I refused to do and try. Aside from adamantly declining to eat certain things, like stinky tofu, birds nests, and the feet of various animals, China was my oyster. Yet I did draw the line regarding two things in China: I said that I would never buy a house and that I would never get a driver’s license. This year upon my return to China I crossed one of those lines to do what was once unthinkable. I got my Chinese driver’s license.

Don’t get me wrong. I have lots of experience on the roads in China. I’ve owned three electric scooters, all of them eventually stolen, and I’ve been behind the wheel of many-a-friends’ cars. During a 2013 visit to Sichuan, we decided to go to Luguhu, a days drive away from Chengdu, which required driving on dilapidated, tortuous mountain roads. My Chinese friend had just gotten his driver’s license and rented a car for the trip. Once we got on the mountain roads, however, it was clear that my friend was not ready for such a driving challenge. I was elected to be the driver. Just last year, I arrived in a small village in northern China to interview a respondent for my research project. The gentleman I was interviewing picked me up at the train station, but when his 3-year old daughter began crying because of the “laowai” in the car, he asked me to drive us to his home while he sat in the back and comforted her. This year driving in China was different. This time I was legal. But like most things in China, it was an ordeal.

It all started when I mentioned to my mother-in-law that I wanted to get a license. I’m still not sure if this was a mistake or not. Within a week, I met a man at her brother’s house. I learned he was a leader of the cheguansuo (department of motor vehicles). We drank tea and talked about the process of getting a Chinese driver’s license. He informed me that I would not have to take a road skills test, only a written test. I immediately asked if they had an English version. I knew several people who had taken the English version years before, the most recent in 2016. He said because people rarely used the English version, they had recently gotten rid of it. If I wanted to take the exam locally, he told me, I would have to take it in Chinese. My immediate thought was that it would be a good excuse to get back on the Chinese language learning grind. After all, I had two months before my planned road trip. But my excitement was cut short when he told me the exam had 100 questions, a 45-minute time limit, and it required a score of 90 or above to pass. I knew my Chinese was good enough to understand the content, but 45 minutes with my snaillike reading? I looked down as a drop of sweat fell into my Oolong. The next day I was delivered a Chinese driving manual to study for the exam by the leader’s wife.

Driving Book Cover

It was a thick little book with 4 sections, and it took a few days before I was able to muster the courage to crack the cover. The very first page began a section on “traffic safety rules” with 266 multiple choice questions followed by 302 true false questions. Question 1 asked about where to apply for a replacement driver’s license. It was easy enough. By question 8 I realized that studying for this test would make me memorize a bunch of relatively useless figures unrelated to actual driving skills. It concerned the legal blood alcohol level for China. 80 milligrams / 100 milliliters. Okay, maybe that would be good to know at some point. But by a few questions later, the thrill was gone. It read: How long must one who dishonestly acquires a driving license wait to re-apply? 1 year? 2 years? Or 3 years? For fuck sakes, it was three years.

The book was a riddle to say the least. You had to tease out the information through successive questions without first having access to a pool of knowledge and rules. Before finishing the first section, I started researching the test in English online. Apparently, the function of such a set up is to prevent Chinese test takers from merely memorizing answers without firmly grasping the logic. Okay, I get it. I was a teacher long enough in China to see that rational. I grew even more worried when I read that many foreigners had failed the English version of the test three times in places like Beijing and Shanghai. After I finished the first section I expressed my concern to my mother-in-law.

The next day my mother-in-law forwarded me a message from the leader’s wife. It read. 姐姐,他练练,到考试时,老公请考官帮忙招呼招呼 (Big sister, let him practice, and when he’s ready to take the exam, my husband will have the examiners greet him).

I thought I knew what that message meant. I still asked several people who verified by hunch that it meant someone would assist me during the exam to make sure I passed. Like often the case, I had become irritated by my mother-in-law’s involvement of so many people in the process of doing something that should, in theory, be so easy. But upon reading the message, I was suddenly thankful. Guanxi isn’t so bad after all, I thought. I hit the Chinese book again with a renewed sense of interest and confidence, and trudged through the ridiculous questions. Even if someone was to help me, I couldn’t let them lose face. About a week later, after I had applied for the exam and read through the Chinese manual, my mother-in-law forwarded another message from the leader’s wife. It read:
姐姐,你女婿已经报名了,他八月份考试,并且有英文版本的,放心吧,没有难度。(Big sister, your son-in-law has already applied, he’ll take the exam in August, and besides there is an English version, don’t worry, it won’t be difficult).

I wasn’t sure whether I should be ecstatic or enraged. I had wasted weeks plodding through the Chinese book. Now I could take the exam in English? Fuck. Why didn’t they tell me this from the get-go? Did an English version suddenly fall from the sky? From a common worker at the DMV, I would expect this sort of misinformation. But from the so-called leader? I got on Taobao and found a Chinglish translation of the book for 50 kuai which arrived the next day. I also found an extremely helpful website that had cleanly translated questions organized by topic, with a mock exam at the end.

The night before the exam, after studying an entire day, I took the mock exam online. I made a 92. Good enough, I thought. I looked over my notes again and took a few photos of the questions which were most troublesome, most of which were confusing traffic police hand signals and questions about the circumstances in which the police could impound one’s car or deduct driving points. The plan was to look at the questions on the taxi ride in the morning.

I arrived at the testing center at 7:40 a.m. There were around 200 people sitting in an unairconditioned room on a stuffy summer morning. As more people were coming in, a young police officer sat in the front and began lecturing about cheating. During his 15-minute speech, he informed us that everyday someone is discovered cheating, and everyday someone is banned from taking the exam for an entire year as a result.


At the end of the speech, he asked those with phones to raise their hands. Nearly everyone, including myself, lifted their arms in the air. He then told us to go to the building outside the main entrance and lock our phones in a locker. Did they notify you of this before the exam, I asked the young guy sitting next to me? No, he said. Approximately 200 people raced out the single door like a herd of cattle.

March On!

30 minutes later, we were back in the main room. Then an old man, the lead testing officer, sat down at the front table to explain the rules of the exam and to inform everyone about the computer software and what to do if one encounters technical problems during the exam. He rambled for 30 minutes before two young men began calling people’s names.

The young officer informed everyone to loudly say the last 4 digits of their ID number when their name was called. When the first person’s name was called, he yelled “daole” (here). The officer angrily said that he should say his number, not “here.” A few minutes later, a jokester followed suit yelling “here” as he ran towards the testing center door. Everyone began laughing, even the officers. I looked at my passport number and noted the last four digits. He called more than 100 people to enter the neighboring door where the actual testing center was located. Then he closed the door, and we waited. After a few minutes, he began calling names again to line up and wait. Nearly a hundred people were standing against the wall in line. I was starting to grow worried. I was one of the last people still sitting. Then he said, “all individuals with foreign driving licenses” come up.

When I had finally made it through the doors, a young police officer asked if I could read Chinese, and when I said yes, she told me to read the rules of the exam posted on the wall. After a few minutes, another lady came to me and asked for my passport. I asked her a question about rule number 6, which said that one would be notified after each incorrect answer before moving to the next question. She said the English version didn’t have this option. Okay. I also asked her questions about the 45-minute rule. Apparently if one fails the exam the first time, the exam could be taken again in the same sitting. She said that rule also applied to the English version. Then she told me to stand in line, and then she entered the testing center again where she began making her rounds with the other two testing officers. When my name was called, I was escorted to computer number 60 in the front row. I asked about inputting my information to begin the exam, and she said that she would do it for me from the central computer in the operations room (which I could see through the glass window). Within minutes, my screen lit up with a “begin test” option.

I finished the exam with 24 minutes remaining, and when I raised my hand to call the officer over, she told me to click submit. My score promptly popped up. I had made a 99. To this, the officer loudly said, in one of the quietest rooms I had ever experienced in China, “lihai” (awesome). I noticed several examinees looking over at me. I could see it in their faces. How in the fuck did this laowai make a 99?

I exited the testing room and waited by the administrative office for my transcript to take it to the cheguansuo to get my license before lunch. By 10:30 a.m., more than 6 weeks after I drank tea with the leader, I had my Chinese license.

I was relieved. I took a picture of my score and posted it on my Wechat moments. Within minutes numerous friends commented on my success. Even my in-laws praised me in the comments section of the post. My father-in-law had been a driver for 40 years in China. From the beginning he was my greatest critic, warning me of the complicated driving rules in China. Did you study today, he would ask? Are you ready for the test?

That night before going out for celebratory drinks, I had dinner with my father-in-law. After complimenting me on the high score, he remarked: “you know, the leader definitely arranged it so that your questions were easier than normal so you could pass. How else would you score so high?” I laughed and said that was impossible since the test was generated randomly from a pool of questions. That night I talked to my better half, and she agreed with me. I passed the test fair and square.

But the more I thought about the situation, the more doubtful I became. After all,, this is China, the place where guanxi gets things done. I thought about asking the leader if he had pulled some strings to arrange an easy test for the laowai. And then I decided I’d rather not know.

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