Preparations: My Driving License Experience
The Chinese Driving License
I came to China partly because I thought I could easily get a motorcycle driving license here and that would save me a trip back home to the states. I've never had a motorcycle license and the only thing I had with me was my old expired laminated style Maine driving license with a picture of me from when I was 16. Despite this little problem, I had read stories of plenty of foreigners getting a license with little issue so I wasn't too worried. Little did I realize how true stories of slow and frustrating communist bureaucracies were. Worse still, China's laws seem to change annually and interpretation of those laws and changes seems to be up to the local officer who is often willing only to do what will take the least amount of effort. This made finding any information incredibly difficult.
Theoretically, there are two paths to getting a Chinese driving license. If you have a foreign license, you only need to have it translated and take a computerized test. If you don't have a foreign license, you're supposed to go through the same process a chinese person would; driving school, and four tests including practical and computerized sections. All this has to be done in the region or county that you live in.
Alright now for the story. There are two major cities in my district; Shaoxing and Zhuji. Zhuji was closer so I went there first. The first time there I went to a small desk outside of the main police station and had a friend who I had met a few minutes before translate my situation to the women there. They said that they didn't have the test in English, try Shaoxing. So I went to Shaoxing a few days later and was told that they don't give the motorcycle test in Shaoxing. I didn't know this but I think they ban motorcycles in that city. So I went to Hangzhou, the provincial capitol, to see if I could somehow get past the county restriction but to no avail. I needed to take the test in Zhuji but they didn't have the test in English.
At this point it all looked pretty hopeless. My only options seemed to be to somehow get that residence paper for Hangzhou or try to find a fake. I took a week break and focused on other things. Then, sort of on a whim, I went back to the Zhuji traffic police and asked again. They remembered me and after laughing with them about my foreignness I was sent into the real traffic police station and led over to a very official looking man with two stars on his jacket. After looking through the rules for a while they said "Go to Shaoxing." I was alone and I tried to explain that I had been there before and they didn't have the test but he didn't understand and said that he had called someone there who could help me out. So that day I went to Shaoxing, about an hour bus ride and a half hour taxi to the traffic police. After waiting around there and meeting another two stared jacket guy, I was given the same answer as last time. No motorcycle tests. So I went back to Zhuji and arrived just before they closed. They laughed as I walked in out of breath and decided to help me out but I needed my documents translated.
So as I mentioned, its easier if you have a foreign motorcycle license but I only had an expired car license with me. However, I had a plan. When I arrived at the translation bureau, I calmly told the translator in Hangzhou that I would like to have my motorcycle license translated and asked them to clarify the fact that It was for motorcycles on the translation form because I wasn't getting a car license. Then I distracted them by telling them about the trip using a map that they conveniently had in the office. They looked for a little while on the internet to confirm my claim and I acted disinterested, every so often telling them to try searching for things that wouldn't actually help them, and in the end they found a single sentence. "a Class C license is valid, with appropriate endorsement, for all non-commercial vehicles in this class." I pointed out that, "see my class C license is valid for all vehicles in the C class" and scrolled up to where it says a motorcycle is a C class vehicle conveniently ignoring the three important words in the commas. They accepted that and problem solved. As for the other issue, the expiration date, luckily the police in Zhuji didn't seem to care too much about that so for now, there were no more problems.
I took the translated documents, now including evidence of a motorcycle license from the USA back to Zhuji, did the medical test, which was only an eye test, and signed up for the computer test. Finally after two months I had caught a break! On the day of the computer test, I went in with my helmet and jacket ready for the practical test afterwards, I had studied the 1500 questions thoroughly over the past few weeks and taken many practice tests, I waited in line and handed my papers to the women there and said the only chinese word I really knew for this situation "motoche" and did my usual motorcycle dance. I could see the testing computers! Then I was asked if I speak chinese. I said no. They sent me to a corner to wait. Then they took me to another room and started talking. More guys with stared jacked came in, I heard the word Shaoxing a few too many times and started to get nervous. Then I was told that they didn't actually have the motorcycle test in English. "No moto english, Goodbye." So back to square one. This was november.
After this terrible set back, I really had no idea what to do. I looked into transferring my residence to another city that had the test in English, I looked into paying a company to bribe me a license but that turned out to be way too expensive. In the mean time I decided to try a new strategy with the Zhuji police. I went in every week or two and presented them with new plans every visit.
"Maybe I can bring a translator?"
"Maybe I can hire one of the police officers in the Hangzhou translation office to translate for me?"
"Maybe I can take the test in Hangzhou and they can send you the results?"
When I ran out of ideas I just started from the beginning of the list again, importantly, always with a smile and a laugh only occasionally showing a little frustration.
"Maybe I can bring a translator"
In January, I started showing up wearing my motorcycle boots and jacket and it became part of the routine for one of the officers to ask me if I had driven there. "oh no! of course not! No license." By this point, it seems like everyone in the police office knew me and my problem and I was always greeted with a sigh and a "No moto!" I smiled and excitedly told them that I had a new idea, took out my iphone and opened google translate.
In March, I decided to try my luck in Shanghai. A guy that I met on mychinamoto forums agreed to put me on his apartment lease so I could get my residence transferred. I had serious doubts about this new plan though. I wouldn't be able to use my translation from the Hangzhou translation office so I would probably have to sign up for a driving school. A few other people on the forums were trying this same route but apparently laws had changed. No one knew if it was even still possible to get this type of license this way anymore but I had no other options. When I arrived in Shanghai, the guy wasn't able to meet so I decided to come back the next week. That night I was offered a choice by a couple of large well spoken Chinese men: the removal of a finger of my choosing or $800. After about an hour of negotiating, I choose to keep my finger.
Later that month I went back to Zhuji for one final appeal. I really pushed the official or certified translator option and started to use the amount of time I'd been coming in to show how important this was to me. Soon the meeting moved into a back room and I spoke with a three starred officer. We then walked to the testing office, walked to another office, back to the small downstairs office and finally I got the google translate message I'd been waiting nearly 6 months for, "you can bring a professional translator." The test date was set for two weeks later. I was experienced enough with this whole process to not get too excited about this but slowly as the date approached, professional translator turned into a local police officer, saving me about $200, and I began to think that this really might be it.
On the test day, the police officer turned out to be the husband of my new friend at the traffic police. He spoke no english. He brought his computer in to the testing room and the three of us sat down to translate the test. There were 50 questions. By about the 15th, they started suggesting answers, and by the 25th the two officers and the testing supervisor were taking the test for me. So I passed!
Then came the two practical road tests. That day I came straight from work wearing my white button up shirt, pin striped jacket, sunglasses with my long blond hair tied in a pony tail. Not your average chinese motorcycle driver. I hate when this happens to me but when I arrived I watched the other drivers struggle with the pointless exercises for a few minutes before they rushed me to the front of the line and put me on a small moped. I went up the ramp, stopped, down and around the corner to the raised beam obstacle which i crossed like a pro. Then came the cones. I snaked around them flawlessly before coming to a stop near the crowd of waiting Chinese trainees. Impressed "wow"s were followed by a loud applause and cheers. I might have imagined that last part. I passed both driving tests later that day and now had only the last computer test scheduled for a few weeks later. This test also turned into a team effort by about the half way point and again I passed.
So thats in. Persistence and a good attitude really go a long way in the chinese system. Now I just have to hope that this license will be recognized by the other countries along my route…