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.
"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.' "
Sometimes, Chinese people struggle with the test as well. When authorities added new questions early last year, failure rates initially soared. In the southern coastal city of Zhuhai, only 7 percent passed the new test, according to the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper. In nearby Shenzhen, less than 4 percent passed.
Once they study, though, many Chinese find the written test as straightforward as foreigners find it difficult.
"For Chinese people, it's just another exam," says Wei Qi, a Chinese TV producer in Beijing, who aced the test on her first try. Wei says the format is easier for Chinese people, because they were raised in an education system that emphasizes memorization. That said, Wei doubts the written test produces better drivers.
"Because the test is so complicated, it kind of undermines the purpose," she says. "I kind of forgot everything. If you asked a question now about a traffic rule, I still couldn't quite answer you."
Wei thinks the behind-the-wheel driving test, which all Chinese must take and involves parking while avoiding laser motion detectors, is much harder.
Where There's Pay, There's A Way
While most foreigners dread taking the written exam, Virgil Adams, a financial manager in coastal Jiangsu province, knew he would pass the first time.
"I didn't study," he says. "I didn't do anything."
He didn't have to, because he had hired a Chinese agent to fix the results.
At the testing center, Adams sat down at the computer and went through the questions. After he finished, per his agent's instructions, he got up and walked out without submitting his answers.
"My best guess is that probably my agent walked in, sat down at my seat, reviewed my answers and corrected any wrong ones," he says. Adams says the whole thing cost about $150.
Paying people to take your driver's test is common in smaller cities here. Authorities in Shanghai try to prevent it by putting cameras next to every computer. One of my Chinese friends got around that in western China, though, by aiming the camera at his face while a paid test-taker typed the correct answers on the computer just out of view.
All that fraud may help explain why — as recently as 2011 — China had a nearly comparable number of drivers as the U.S., but almost twice as many traffic deaths.
As for me, I continued to take the test — and fail. After I flunked the third time, without improving my score, I banged my head on the desk in the exam room and couldn't stop laughing.
The police officer proctoring the exam shook his head and scowled, suggesting I should take my serial failure more seriously.
On my fourth try after hours of study, I finally passed with a score of 93. Afterward, that same cop, with whom I'd become quite familiar, gave me a big grin and shook my hand.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
China is home to the world's largest car market and it added nearly 18 million drivers just last year. But getting a license isn't easy. There's a practical test and a written one where a passing grade is 90 percent. Oh, and foreigners get translated questions, which they often find incomprehensible. NPR's Frank Langfitt recently took the written test several times and filed this postcard from Shanghai.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: So I'm here at the Shanghai traffic bureau. I'm about to go in and take the test. And I can tell you, this is actually a really, really hard test because I failed it the first time. It's chosen from over 900 questions. You have to do 100 questions. And I'm going to hope that this time I pass. It took me 20 minutes to finish this time. I felt confident. I shouldn't have.
So I failed again. I did improve. The first time I got a 77 out of 100. This time I got an 86, which anywhere else would be a solid B, but not on the Chinese driving test.
What makes the test so hard? First, you have to memorize a ton of information. Consider this yes or no question. Reading verbatim: If a motorized vehicle driver has cause 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 three years to seven years.
The answer, it turns out, is no. What's the actual prison term? I have no idea. The second reason the test is tough for foreigners is this.
HUGO ILLOA: It's impossible to understand what they're trying to say.
LANGFITT: Hugo Illoa is an international trader from Chile. We met after he'd failed the test for the second time.
ILLOA: I've been studying for two days already.
LANGFITT: How many hours, do you think?
ILLOA: It was like, last night, it was three hours and I still cannot pass this. I'm getting really frustrated.
LANGFITT: Foreigners do appreciate that officials here offer an English version of the test, but they find some of the translations a hard slog like this one: When there's 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 under Chinese law, apparently you can't do it.
JEFFREY KELSCH: My name is Jeffrey Kelsch. I run a marketing research firm here in Shanghai.
LANGFITT: Kelsch tried for his license last year so he could drive out of town with his dog for trips. Kelsch failed the first two times.
KELSCH: Then, I took it the third time and I actually did worse. So at this point, I decided, OK. I'm giving up on this. I did worse than my second score, which was like a - I think it was like an 83 or an 84.
WEI QIU: For Chinese people, it's just another exam and Chinese people are good at exams.
LANGFITT: Wei Qiu, a Chinese TV producer in Beijing, passed the written test on her first try. She says the format is much easier for Chinese people, because they were raised in an education system that emphasizes memorization. But Wei doubts the test produces better drivers.
QIU: Because the test is so complicated, it kind of undermines the purpose of (unintelligible) test. You know, after the test, I pretty much forget everything. So if you now asked me a question now about a traffic rule, I still couldn't quite answer you.
VIRGIL ADAMS: I didn't study. I didn't do anything. I've been driving for more than 30 years.
LANGFITT: Virgil Adams works as a financial manager in Jiangshu Province outside of Shanghai. Unlike other foreigners who approached the test with dread, Adams knew he would pass the first time. That's because he hired a Chinese agent to fix the results.
ADAMS: I sat down at the terminal and I started taking the test. At the end of the test, as per my agent's instructions, I did not submit my answers. I stood up and walked out of the testing room. My best guess is that probably my agent walked in, sat down at my seat, reviewed my answers and corrected any wrong ones.
LANGFITT: Paying people to take your driver's test is common in smaller cities here. That may explain why, as recently as 2011, China had a similar number of drivers as the U.S. but nearly twice as many traffic deaths. As for me, I finally passed the test. On the fourth try I got a 93. Afterwards, a police officer at the testing center who was getting to know me pretty well, came over and shook my hand. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.