There are few moments more petrifying in a teenage boys life than those spent attempting to pass the driving test. Not the written one. Those moments are painful as well but they are nothing compared to the heart thumping horror of buckling up (or heaven forbid . . . forgetting to) next to the the beady-eyed, frozen-hearted, expressionless, clipboard wielding examiner. Every move is cautiously calculated and every word is fearfully over evaluated.
For example, he says, “Ok. Ready to begin?”
Obviously a loaded question and most likely some kind of psychological warfare tactic strategically designed to break your will and crush your spirit but, even though you see right through his dirty little scheme, your mind races uncontrollably. “What do you mean by ‘ready to begin?’ Of course I’m ready. Why would I not be ready? I’m forgetting something aren’t I? What am I forgetting? Seat belt? On. Radio? Off. Seat? Adjusted. Mirrors? Perfect. WHAT ARE YOU SEEING THAT I’M NOT?!! If I say ‘yes’ and I’m wrong you’ll flunk me but if I say ‘no’ you’re going to expect a reason and I DON”T HAVE A REASON!! WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO SAY?!! PLEASE, PLEEAAASSE DON’T FAIL ME”
Smiling like a used car salesman you try to outfox him . “Oh, I think I’m just about ready. Are you ready?”
He squints and stares through your soul for a split second and then glances down to his clip board. “I’m not the one taking the test.”
He makes a mark.
It’s twenty minutes of absolute terror that culminates in the five most blood curdling words in a 16 year old’s vocabulary . . . “Ok, parallel park right here.”
You can understand why I was overjoyed when my friends told me that a road test was not required to get a Chinese driver’s license. Especially considering that I had never actually driven in the chaos that is Chinese traffic. Consequently my overjoy was matched with overtrembling when I discovered that because my license in America allowed me to drive a fifteen passenger van, my Chinese license would (by declaration of Chinese law and possibly Chairman Mao himself) have to be the same. The bigger problem was that there is no license classification for a 15 passenger van in China. The closest equivalent is a 21 passenger mini-bus which I would, in fact, be required to drive, for the first time in my life, through China traffic, in the presence of the Chinese version of my most dreaded arch enemy from the most traumatic 20 minutes of my teenage life. I felt fears that I had not felt in 20 years as I envisioned the examiner (now a Communist) asking me to parallel park a manual transmission bus between two BMW’s on a steep incline.
I arrived at the DMZ . . . wait, no . . . DMV with Mr. Wang who would serve as my translator and his 8 year old son Andy who came along for the ride. We sat in a big room with 50 other people waiting to take the driving test and watched horrible videos of actual car crashes with real people being thrown and dragged and as far as I could tell, killed. They were similar to the videos that we saw in high school when the county coroner came and tried to scare us into driving responsibly. We loved those videos. At least the boys did. The girls all screamed and hid their faces which, truth be told, was the only reason we boys loved it. The whole gory event was proof positive that any attempt to publicly manipulate 16 year old boys into doing anything responsible was a hopeless endeavor. Twenty years later on the other hand, it seemed to be working. I was feeling more responsible (and more nauseous) by the moment.
We waited for about two hours until myself, Mr. Wang, Andy and one other man were last in the room. This man and I were the only ones being tested for the mass transit vehicle which I was now calling “Gargantua” in my head. At last our names were called. We all boarded the vehicle and, in answer to my prayers, the other man was chosen to drive first.
What happened next was both frightening and glorious.
I do not believe this man had ever driven a manual transmission vehicle (stick shift) in his life. In fact, it is entirely feasible that he had never driven any vehicle in his life. Have you ever been in a car when the driver both releases the clutch and stomps on the accelerator all in one immediate motion? You know how the entire car bounces up and down, jerks forward in several quick bursts tossing the passengers around like they were dice in a Yahtzee cup and makes a horrible sound like — KACHUM KACHUM KACHUM CHUM CHUM CHUM? And then it dies?
Yeah. We did that. Only it was a bus.
I had no idea you could make a bus bounce like that. My eyes were wide and glued to the examiner who made a mark on his clipboard. Then we did it again . . . KACHUM CHUM CHUM CHUM . . . dead. And again KACHUM CHUM CHUM CHUMM MMMM . . . finally he achieved forward motion and proceeded out of the parking lot into oncoming traffic . . . where he stopped. I kid you not, he stopped the bus in the middle of the lane blocking oncoming traffic. He began to look around and I recognized that he had forgotten to put his seat belt on.
“Ahhhh, nice catch my friend. You might lose some points for, you know, stopping a BUS in the middle of the road but at least you’re remembering to buckle up which everyone knows is the unforgivable driving test sin and an automatic fail.
Turns out he was just a little cramped, so he moved his seat back and then KACHUM CHUM CHUM CHUM . . . killed it . . . KACHUM CHUM CHUM CHUMM MMMM and we were off again . . . without a seatbelt. We drove down the correct side (mostly) of the road for about 20 seconds and the examiner had seen enough. He asked him to stop on the side of the road and told us to trade places while he marked his clipboard. As I remember it I was in a slight state of shock. My mouth was wide open, my head was tilted slightly to the left and I was grasping to make even a tiny bit of sense out of what had just happened. Before I crawled into the driver’s seat I looked to Mr. Wang.
“Mr. Wang” I said, “did he pass?”
Mr. Wang looked at me as if I was a complete moron. “Pfft . . . yeah, of course.”
From that second forward I felt great. I leapt to the driver’s seat and in a single motion, buckled my safety belt, adjusted my mirror and looked the examiner square in the eye and said with tremendous confidence, “I’m ready.”
I drove in a straight line for about 15 seconds and he asked me to pull over. He turned to Mr. Wang and said, “Wah, he’s good.” That was it. Test over. No trick questions. No BMW’s or inclines and absolutely zero parallel parking.
It was a golden moment for both me and Mr. Wang and the perfect ending to a needlessly stressful event.