I took the cramming school, the conveyor belt approach to learning to drive. As a passed and stamped graduate of the Oriental Fashion Driving School I’m relieved that I no longer have to get up at 5 o’clock for a 7 to 12 seat behind the wheel at Oriental’s sprawling complex near the Marco Polo bridge in Fengtai, the southwestern district of garages, cheap apartments and enough cheap land for two of China’s biggest driving schools.
Depending on my class I climbed on the school bus at six or seven in the morning, dismounted two hours later for lessons, and got back on board at 1.15 for the two hour drive home.
A late presence behind the wheel, I took up driving in China because I wanted to practise, safely, before taking my driving test back home in Europe. Why a foreigner costs more to teach than a local was never properly explained to me but I paid RMB8,000 whereas local students paid RMB2,000 for their 54 hours of driving lessons.
Depending on who you ask there are between 100 and 150 driving schools in Beijing. Oriental Fashion is a top-three player: it sponsors the weather show on Beijing TV. And by some dint of good luck and connections it’s the only school allowed to take foreigners as students.
So after a medical exam -a two minute sight test where I called in the door from the top of a queue of fellow applicants – I did what millions of Chinese are doing every day, I learned to drive. I paid my money down but it’d be another month before I could get behind the wheel of a car. I wasn’t told that you’ve first got to pass a theory exam – that comes last in European and American driving test centres. A book of theory was torturously translated, particularly on who should first pass whom on a slippery hill.
It took two visits to the marble-swathed offices of the road traffic police before I exceeded the minimum 90 percent required to pass. My Siberian fellow examinee still hasn’t mastered the rules of China’s road in Cyrillic, after three exams. Driving instructors at home are self employed with pot bellies who collect you from your house in a small red hatchback cars with an L plate on top. At Oriental Fashion I was usually number 505 –mine among the cars lined up in neat rows of silver and white Volkswagen sedans in a giant asphalted car park.
Everything at Oriental Fashion was about order and scale. The giant canteen sat 1,000 drivers and their tutors. The fleet of buses ferried them to Fengtai every morning and home again after class. The billiards room and the motel were for relaxation. It was impossible to know who’d want to stay in this part of town – and you can get digs for the RMB200 a room rate in less industrial parts of the city.
Tutors here have pot bellies too, but tucked into a uniform of blue shirts and synthetic grey blue slacks hitched up high on click-buckled belts the way Chinese men like to wear them. Truck drivers and machine operators seeking a quieter life, they wheeled off each morning from smoking circles as students arrived. The sight of a foreigner was like some spin the bottle, which car is he going to stop at. Foreigners make up five percent of the school’s student base.
A series of tutors guided me through driving, turning, parking, reversing. In our last classes we combined all of the skills. Turning the steering wheel: we did two hours of laying hands and doing half turns, full turns, then right turns.
Driving was sometimes a misnomer for the crawl of saloons around the obstacles, over the bridges and the go-slow bumps. With spring came machines that ripped the tar and downsized the course. Management had sold on to a property developer or to the neighbouring railway yard, depending on which tutor was talking.
The tutors talked through tea leaves and the odour that came from a breakfast of garlic-laced cabbage and baozi, steamed buns filled with meat. The terminology was sometimes inscrutable from teacher to teacher, and most inscrutable from the mouth of my teacher from Shanxi who giggled and scampered around the car to point out bottles and posts and grass marks which were to be lined up with window wipers and door panels.
I was a constant source of fascination for the other students. Most drove in fours all day every day for two weeks, taking turns behind the wheel while three more sat in the back. A hair dressing salon I befriended were staff working the late shift at a down-town hair dressing salon. Their hair styles bordered on disaster: there was the disastrous poodle job in brown dye on a 20-something barber, sat next to girl colleagues who went for a long fringe streaked with peroxide blonde and a mad-cap combination of perm and a straight fringe.
China’s drivers were young and in a hurry to be licensed. There was the 74 year old who drove alone, a dream fulfilled by a wealthy son whose driver waited in a black Audi to take the student home. White-haired and wearing thick spectacles he seemed intent on fun, preferring to give gas on the slow-go obstacle course of raised manhole lids. He had a dangerous habit of overtaking whenever his instructor’s foot was off the brakes fixed in the passenger seat to tame dangerous learner drivers.
I never saw another non-Asian behind the wheel while I was driving but am told there’s a good sprinkling of Russians and Indians. Whatever, business is good: students need to book a week in advance to get a car and trainer. I paid dearly in sleep and silver for my license to drive in China. But not wanting to contribute to Beijing’s pollution and congestion I’m sticking to my bike.