Recently, I decided to apply for a driver's license in China. Since I already have one from the U.S., the main thing I had to do was pass a computerized test on the rules of the road here. I figured it would be a breeze.
Driving and car ownership have taken off in China. Last year, the country added nearly 18 million drivers. There is so much demand for licenses that I had to wait a month for the first available testing date.
The night before my test, I decided to take a practice one online. There were 100 questions drawn from a pool of nearly 1,000. You had to get 90 correct to pass.
I got a 65 and started to panic. On the way to the testing center the next day, I crammed on my iPad, but still only scored a 77.
Why is the Chinese driver's test so hard? For one thing, it requires a ton of memorization. Consider this yes or no question, taken verbatim from a test:
"If a motorized vehicle driver has caused a major traffic accident in violation of the traffic regulations which has caused human death due to his escaping, the driver is subject to a prison term of 3 years to 7 years."
The answer, it turns out, is "no." I eventually answered this correctly, but still have no idea what the actual prison term is.
The other reason the test is difficult for foreigners is some of the translations are, well, challenging. Take this question:
"When theres [sic] a diversion traffic control on the expressway, a driver can stop by the side to wait instead of leaving out of the expressway, for continually running after the traffic control."
I don't know what that means, but apparently under Chinese law, you can't do it.
'There's Something Wrong With That Test'
I wasn't the only foreigner who struggled with the questions. Others left the testing center shellshocked.
"It's impossible to understand what they're trying to say," said Hugo Ulloa, an international trader from Chile, as we commiserated after he'd failed a second time.
A man takes a computerized road rules test at a driving school in Jinan, in eastern China's Shandong province, in 2011. Most Chinese people — accustomed to an education system that emphasizes rote memorization — don't find the test as difficult as foreigners.
"I've been studying for two days," Ulloa continued, shaking his head. "Last night, it was like three hours and I still cannot pass this. I'm getting really frustrated."
Jeffrey Kelsch, an American who runs a market research firm in Shanghai, applied for a license last year because he wanted to be able to take his dog, Dash, a West Highland white terrier, on driving trips out of town.
Most foreigners here can't read Chinese and people appreciate that the government offers the test in translation. In Shanghai, you can take it in English, Russian, Japanese, Korean, Italian, German, French, Spanish and Arabic. (Foreigners must have a Chinese license to drive in China.)
Kelsch took the English version of the test, but it didn't help much. After he flunked the first time, "I went out and complained," Kelsch recalled. "I said, 'There's something wrong with that test. I'm sure I got all of them right.' "
A traffic bureau official assured him he had not, but allowed him to take the test again on the spot. Kelsch, 46, failed again. Then he studied and took it a third and even a fourth time.
"And I actually did worse," Kelsch said, laughing in disbelief. "So, at that point I decided, 'OK, I'm giving up on this.' "