I read the question again. I was stumped. It didn't make sense. But nevertheless, there it was. All the answers seemed implausible, so I took a stab at it and moved on. And then I stopped to consider the situation in which I'd found myself.
I'd moved to Taiwan three months earlier to TEFL Vietnam to elementary school children and make half-hearted attempts to learn Mandarin. Soon after I arrived, I'd bought a used black scooter, a nine-year-old, 125cc Yamaha; its model name, Fuzzy, was emblazoned on its flanks in silver and red. Although Fuzzy had so much mileage that her odometer had been rolled back to the preposterously low figure of 5,000 kilometers, she still accelerated hard and fast and she always started in the morning. I loved her.
I drove Fuzzy every day - illegally. I had no driver's license. In fact, most of the other expats in Kaohsiung, a smoggy industrial city in southern Taiwan, also lacked the necessary documentation; we simply took our chances that the police wouldn't stop us. "Just smile and talk fast in English and they'll let you go," a fellow American teacher had told me.
But for several weeks, rumors had swirled that the police were beginning to crack down, imposing exorbitant fines and finding license-less expats financially liable in accidents even when they weren't at fault. So, I'd decided, it was time to go legit. Thus, I found myself at the Taiwanese traffic bureau that day facing the written exam.
I expected I'd do fine. After all, since touching down in Taiwan, I'd become an expert driver: The island's roadways were always clogged with cars and motorcycles and trucks, but I'd learned that the official traffic laws served mainly as suggestions rather than, well, laws. Following the lead of the scooters around me, I'd picked up the habit of splitting the lanes between lines of backed-up cars at intersections. I'd navigate the narrow space between vehicles - dodging a side-view mirror here, then there - and I'd sometimes be forced to swerve as taxi drivers stuck their heads out of their windows and let fly with bright red streams of betel-nut spit.
Confident that I'd pass with ease, I'd walked into the traffic bureau and discovered the test had a written component as well. In a spacious classroom bathed in flickering fluorescent light, the proctor, a corpulent man with a buzz-cut and a menacing scowl, handed out the exams and barked instructions in Chinese. I didn't understand a word.
Then he handed me a sheaf of papers and said, "English test for you. Ten minutes only."
After negotiating 50 ambiguous questions, I handed in the exam and retired to the cramped lobby to await the results. Soon, the receptionist told me I'd passed. It was on to the driving test. This, I thought, would be easy.
I walked outside to a staging ground with a group of 20 teenagers applying for their very first licenses. We stood before an elaborate course that seemed to replicate every driving predicament we might face on Taiwanese roads - railroad tracks, stop lights, and sharp turns. (There were, however, no scooter drivers talking on cell phones, sipping green tea, and petting the toy poodles resting on their handlebars.)
The course began with two straight white lines painted on the ground four feet apart. From a stationary position, we had to drive between them without allowing our wheels (or feet) to touch them - and this had to be done at a slow pace: no faster than seven seconds, no slower than nine. A giant electronic scoreboard ticked off the time.
As we lined up, I positioned myself comfortably at the back - while I was certain I could stay between the lines, I didn't know how fast I'd need to go. Just as a skinny teenage girl with dyed red hair was preparing to begin, the administrator, perched on an elevated platform, yelled something in Chinese. She stepped aside, turned around, and looked at me - as did the rest of the crowd. The administrator was a short, lean man with a pack of Long Life cigarettes in his shirt pocket; he pointed at me and blew a whistle.
"You first," he said.
I looked down at my feet and pretended I hadn't heard him.
Perhaps he wanted to grant me the honor of the inaugural run. Or maybe he simply wanted to have some fun with the tall, clumsy foreigner. Either way, it was go-time.
I swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and wheeled my scooter up to the starting line. "Go," said the administrator without delay. He clicked a remote control. I looked at the scoreboard. It read, "1-2-3-"
I rolled back on the throttle and lurched awkwardly into the space between the lines. But I'd started too quickly; I was going too fast and, afraid I'd finish before seven seconds, I clamped down hard on the brakes. The scooter slowed drastically. Robbed of momentum, I began to teeter. I tried to gun the engine and right myself, but it was too late: I was tipping over. I shot my left foot out and stabbed at the ground to keep from tipping over. My foot landed precisely on one of the white lines.
The training course erupted in a cacophony of air-raid-style sirens. Red, green, and yellow lights pulsed cruelly. The crowd murmured. I looked at the administrator. He frowned and hit the kill switch on his remote control. Silence descended upon the course.
"Again," he said, waving his hand toward the starting line. "One more only."
He'd cut me a break. Relieved, I guided my scooter back to the start of the course. The administrator reset the clock and I shot forward once again. This time, though, I was veering to the right, perilously close to the white line. I stood up off my seat and leaned left in a desperate attempt to counteract my precipitous bearing. But my efforts were in vain: I watched in dismay as my front tire nudged the line. The sirens and lights screeched to life again with bitter precision.
I had failed.
I walked my scooter off the course and watched as the other applicants passed effortlessly - one by one, they guided their scooters straight as arrows through the white lines and to the finish. I was dejected. I got on my scooter and went home - the traffic-course administrator saw me saddle up and drive away, but he didn't seem to care that I had just flunked the test. Perhaps he felt bad for me.
It took me three months to muster the courage to return to the traffic bureau for another attempt. This time, however, after practicing on my own, I prevailed. And while I was relieved to have conquered the test at long last and received my official license, it proved somewhat anticlimactic: the memory of my initial defeat has proved much more vivid than the happier recollection of having subsequently succeed.
When my year in Taiwan ended, I was required to return my ID and insurance cards. Though I suspect the authorities wanted my scooter license back as well, I didn't volunteer it. I never want to take that driving test again. (And for the record, the correct answer to the exam question was number three. Go figure.)
HOW TO OBTAIN AN INTERNATIONAL DRIVING PERMIT
An international driving permit is a booklet that translates the terms of your U.S. driver's license into a variety of languages. It's not a separate license, having no validity on its own, and it only pertains to driving a car, not scooters or motorcycles; its purpose is simply to provide foreign police officers with a description of your domestic driving privileges. To obtain an IDP, go to your local American Automobile Association office.
Bring your driver's license and two passport-size photos; the fee is $18 for AAA members, $22 for non-members. You can find your local branch by visiting the AAA Website (aaa.com).
ODD DRIVING LAWS AROUND THE WORLD
- Thailand: Automobile drivers must wear shirts.
- Belgium: Drivers turning into oncoming traffic have the right-of-way - unless they slow down or stop while turning.
- San Francisco: It's illegal to clean your car with underwear.
- Finland: Taxi drivers must pay royalties if they play music for their customers.
- Denmark: Drivers are obligated to perform a visual check to ensure that no children are underneath their cars before starting their engines.