Monday, May 11, 2009

Ride with me (or not!)

I was in Shanghai this weekend. On Saturday I caught up with some people from the company where I am going to work this summer, as they were in Shanghai on a business trips, and had brought an employment contract for me to sign. One of the women from the company is more or less my ’idol.’ She’s in her late 40ies and speaks perfect Chinese. And when I say perfect I really mean perfect. Unless it was for her white hair and super blue eyes and tall height (ehhh) you could have taken her for a local. She used to be married to a Chinese man and has studied Chinese for 5 years in Beijing, so it all makes sense… still, she’s quite an inspiration.

Anyways, we were having dinner and started talking about driving in China. I don’t have any Chinese driver’s license and I’m not planning to get one either (I’d love to live for another year or so at least!) but a lot of foreigners that I know in Suzhou have. It’s apparently quite easy to get a driver’s license over here if you already have one from your country of origin. You just have to take some theory test, and since the test is entirely in Chinese, you need to get a translator/interpreter to come with you on the test day. I know that there is one Chinese woman in Suzhou who is particularly popular, as she has worked for most of the people that I know.

She started off as an innocent translator, going to the tests and translating the questions. Then came the day when she was at the test with a foreigner and realized that the foreigner didn’t really know the answers to the questions. Since she was sitting there next to him, and knew all the answers by heart (it is apparently always the same test every time), she decided to help him out. Once she’d done it once it became more of a common practice… and then, she realized that there was big business to be made, and offered a service of her taking the test, but typing the foreigner’s name on the test paper. It couldn’t have been easier for foreigners to get their Chinese driver’s licensee in Suzhou. They didn’t even have to show up on the exam day!

Although after some months the police smelled something fishy and decided to investigate her, so then she had to actually start brining the foreigner to the test in person again. Although she’s still taking the test for them, telling them what key to press (it’s a computer test).

When we shared this story with my Finnish translator friend, she laughed and told me that once, a Chinese man who was living in Finland and who wanted to get a Finnish driver’s license, hired her to be his translator during the test. She agreed to do the job, and told him that the test was quite hard and that he had to study and prepare well for it.

During the test day, they sat down in front of the computer, the first question showed up and she translated it for him.

-Yeah, OK, he said. And nodded to her. And then….?

-And then what?

-And then… what’s the correct answer? You’re going to tell me that too, right?

-Eh… no. The answer to the question you need to know yourself!

Face loss big time! My friend felt embarrassed by the guy’s requirement and the Chinese man felt embarrassed by the fact that he had thought that when he hired the translator, he also hired someone who could take the test for him. A sweaty hour in front of the computer followed, with suspicious looks from the test supervisor. In the end, the man failed his test and he never hired my friend to re-take the test again.

Note to self: when bumping into a foreigner in China/a Chinese person abroad with a Chinese/foreign driver's license, ask how they got it. I wonder how many people who actually take that test themselves. 


Josh said...


You just take the test in Chinese. Gee whiz, foreigners in the big cities can be spoiled! Ayi's, western food, people translating tests for you. No wonder people find it so hard to learn Chinese while living in Beijing, Shanghai, or (apparently) Suzhou. I'm not talking directly at you, Jonna, just the foreign population as a whole.

People shouldn't be getting their license until they have at least a year or two under their belt of watching how Chinese traffic works. By that time they should at least have a basic understanding of Chinese characters, at least enough to study for a test. There is a booklet of about 1,000 questions and for the test there are a random 100 you have to answer. All a person has to do who can't fully read Chinese is just study the right answers. When you take the test it'll be the only one you recognize.

Anke said...

I don't know if it is the same as the test in Suzhou, but my husband took the Beijing driver's test. In Beijing they have a test available in English, so I don't think the having-your-translator-do-the-test works here.

I would almost recommend taking the test for blog material. It does not seem to shed much light on the traffic laws in China (my husband still has no clue who officially has right of way at intersections, and the things he does know are laws that of course nobody abides by). However, it is extremely entertaining albeit difficult.

You have to get 90 out of a 100 (taken from a pool of approximately 1000 questions). The task is made more difficult by the fact that the English translations range from very good to completely incomprehensible. There are even two questions where the questions look exactly the same, but the answers are different.

And then of course there are the topics of some of the questions: can we spit while driving? How loud should one blow the horn when encountering a horse drawn cart? Can one drive without a shirt on (or maybe only at night)?

See for more questions (with answers!)

kanmuri said...

Kinda scary...

In Japan I only had to pass an interview to get my Japanese license. Of course, it was entirely in Japanese. Some people had to take a test; it all depends on where you're from.

The Casual Observer said...

I can't imagine that this translator is the only one proving translations with a "bonus". When I saw you mention a translator, I immediately jump to the conclusion that cheating would occur.

Is it a common practice in many countries to allow a translator? It is not common in the US - I'm not sure that is allowed in any of the 50 states.

In many states, the test (which varies from state to state, as the laws are slightly different) is available in languages other than English (most commonly in Spanish).

In some states, though, legislatures are passing laws that say that the test (and other state forms) can only be in English.

The net result is a lot of people driving without licenses, and also without insurance - since reputable insurance companies won't insure an unlicensed driver.


Yep!..our Chinese cousins used to magically take care of our traffic school tickets. When they moved back, we magically stopped getting traffic violations, we were too scared to take the test.

Reluctant and Recluse said...

Hehehe... so ideally you would be married to a chinese man to get that perfect accent! ;)

People fret too much over drivers licenses and driving conditions, whether you're driving in Afghanistan or Anahiem (and i have done both and many in between) the goal is to avoid others :) - Actually the more chaotic the condition the easier it is to drive; getting off the plane in Europe and get into a car if you make a wrong turn or wrong move you really stand out (and maybe get fined if serious) - but in China you'd probably fit right in, and most likely not get fined :)

...and thank god for GPS!

flyingfish said...

I am glad you will be working with someone who inspires you so, Jonna! How lucky you are to have this chance!

@ Josh: That's a clever idea! I mean, studying the right answers on the premise that that's the one you'll recognize. But I agree, people should understand how traffic works here, and should also know how to read at least a little bit (so they can read street signs and traffic warnings, not all of which are translated into English or pinyin) before they try to get a license.

I would never dare to drive here in Beijing. I HATE the traffic here. I just hate it. There are not many things about Beijing that I dislike, but boy, some days the insane way people drive makes me want to move back to Boston.

(For anyone unfamiliar with Boston drivers, that was a joke. Boston drivers are notoriously rude and aggressive. But, I must say, compared with Beijingers, they're models of orderliness and civility.)

Blank-Socrate said...

in my country Egypt you just need to pay around 100 $ for the police officer to get your license :) "sure not directly through middleman "
the fishy smel is everywhere here

Jonna Wibelius said...

Josh -f course I know u r not talking directly to me, since I am one of those who is devoting a lot of my free time to learn Chinese (and would never use a translator for my test). As for ayis... hm.. a lot of my Chi friends (from all over China) also have ayis. So I don't see anything super strange with that here in China. The western food in Suzhou is so poor and overpriced that I rarely enjoy it. Although I am very very VERY happy that there's an ikea in Shanghai! Is that being spoiled? Hm... well not according to me. More like, lucky.

I can understand why a lot of westerners use a translator when taking the test since the test is in Chinese. These men are in their late 40ies, working here on a full-time basis for maybe 3 years and most of them have no interest in learning Chinese... although I agree with Flyingfish, SOME basic traffic-Chinese they should learn if they want to drive here, otherwise they are a danger to the traffic. Cheating in a test, however, or letting someone else take the test for you, is completely unacceptable (not to mention lazy!) to me. I think the responsibility lies in both the test-taker's and the translator's hands... like my translator friend in Finland, the translator should simply translate and refuse to 'help out.'

Anke -wow, that sounds like blog material indeed!!! And your hubby passed it? Very impressive!

Kanmuri -did u take it? Do u drive in Japan? Maybe the traffic is more organized and less crazy over there actually...

Casual observer -I was actually surprised to hear that u could use a translator in Finland... I thought all foreigners over there had to take the test in English by themselves.

Reluctant -I've heard that from other's too... (that the more chaotic the traffic, the easier to drive). As for getting a Chinese hubby to improve my language -haha, yeah, well I am sure it would work wonders for my Chinese! But having a lot of Chinese friends helps too! :)

flyingfish -I am with you. I hate the traffic over here too, with passion. I ride my bike everywhere and some days I get so angry and frustrated that I scream out loud. people are just behaving like total je*** when they are driving here... it's just the 'me me me first first first!' mentality and it is driving me insane... so I would never, ever even dream about driving over here. Riding a bike is frustrating (and dangerous) enough! (wow, I am such a wild kid....Not!)

Anonymous said...

Hi Jonna, do they serve swedish imported meatballs at Ikea in Shanghai, or locally prepared meatballs?

Jonna Wibelius said...

anonymous -not sure about the meatballs in the resto, but the once in the food shop (on the first floor) are from Sweden, along with all the other yummy food! Although I actually don't like those meatballs so much, I prefer to make my own! always better than ready-made. And quite simple to make too.

Pete In Syracuse said...

That is so wild, I'm not sure what to say. You say traffic is crazy there, but are there a lot of accidents there too?

Jonna Wibelius said...

Pete -China has the most traffic accidents in the world. It's not so bad in the bigger cities, such as Suzhou, Shanghai and Beijing, but if you start moving outwards you'll see accidents everywhere...

Jackie said...

I don't think we let you have a translator with you at the test in the US...but I'm also pretty sure they have an english and a spanish option!

mantse said...

There is a question that why that kind of translator can survive? this means this is demand and supply theory....

anyway, keep upright sometimes is not easy when a obvious short cut here