On the outskirts of Beijing sits the Motor Vehicle Administration department, located at the east Fourth Ring Road, near the southwestern edge of the Shibalidian South Bridge. It's a place most foreigners never visit, unless they want a Chinese driver's license.
I was given a review book composed of 1,317 questions. About half are multiple-choice questions, while the other half are right or wrong review questions. One hundred of these questions will be on the test, and you have 45 minutes to answer all of them. You must answer at least 90 percent correctly.
On my scheduled day I arrived to a crowded room filled with people of various ages and nationalities. The test comes in nine languages, Chinese, English, Russian, German, French, Japanese, Korean, Arabic and Spanish. While waiting to be escorted to the test room I did my best to ignore the traffic accident videos playing on the big screen television at the front of the room.
I hit "start" on my computer screen, took a deep breath, and began right away. There were probably about 20 questions I had never seen before and it was hard for me to relax. Applying common sense to China's driving rules will get you nowhere; you either know the answers or you don't. I had only studied for about six hours over the course of two weeks, and it was beginning to show.
The questions I focused on while studying had more to do with the act of driving and all the various fines you can get for breaking variety of driving rules. For example for getting caught driving while intoxicated in China will cost you anywhere between 200 and 2,000 yuan, plus anywhere from one to 15 days in jail. Your license will be suspended from one to three months.
The legal alcohol limit in China is 0.02 while in America it's 0.08. Not one question regarding fines or driving infractions of any sort was on my test.
When I was done my score was revealed to me within a matter of seconds on my computer. It was 88. I had failed. A woman to my right had also failed, and she was in tears. I didn't cry, but I definitely wasn't happy.
Whether you get a 0 or an 89 it means you have to come back and take the test again if you want to legally drive on the streets of the Middle Kingdom. I am sure there is an elite group of foreigners living in China who have passed the driver's license exam their first time out, and although I am not a member of this club, I have yet to meet a person who is. You can take the test as many times as necessary, but you'll be charged 50 yuan every other time you go in.
Mehdi Arronis is from France and moved to China in 2004. He speaks Chinese, English and, of course, French fluently. He originally moved to China to study martial arts and currently works as a French teacher in Beijing. He has taken the test four times, three times in French and once in Chinese, and has yet to pass.
Each time he has taken the exam he has scored around 80. Arronis has a university degree in civil engineering, and studied Chinese at a university in France.
Once I really started studying I felt that learning the driving rules and regulations of China had almost become more difficult than learning Chinese. I spent the following two weeks studying from one to three hours every day. I carried my review book everywhere I went. I studied on the subway. I studied when I had free time at work. I would write down the questions I missed throughout the day and then memorize the answers only to review those same questions later in the evening before I went to bed. At one stretch I answered 317 questions correctly in a row. My life in Beijing had come to a complete standstill and I wasn't going to be free to enjoy the city or anything else until I passed. Besides, what would my friends think if I flunked it a second time?
Two weeks had passed and once again here I was sitting in the waiting room watching the same violent traffic accident videos.
While taking the test I again encountered questions about fire safety and when a driver is allowed to use their horn, but unlike last time, I knew the answers. Overall there were only maybe four questions I had never seen before.
I finished the exam and still had about 12 minutes to spare. I went over my answers and changed two. With only a few minutes remaining I felt I had done all I could do and could go no further. I hit "finish" and my score was quickly kicked back to me. 90 appeared on the computer screen. With a sigh of relief I briefly savored the moment. Passing had never felt this good.
I think every foreigner in China should take the Chinese driver's license exam at least once. I'm only kidding, but for those interested the experience does allow you to peek inside a small aspect of a country and culture few outsiders understand. If I'm ever in charge of a human resource department and I see on someone's resume they have a Chinese driver's license then that person will probably get an interview. At least we'll have something to talk about.
(China Daily 07/21/2010)