Cut Loose at Fifty: Chapter Fifteen – All I wanted was a driver's licence
By Chris Clancy
January 1st 2007.
The one really big thing I missed about the UK was not having my own transport. So, my New Year's Resolution was to get a car.
I thought it would be a fairly straight-forward matter. But, after two and a half years I should have learned that not many things are straight-forward in China - especially when it involves Chinese bureaucracy. Up to this point, mercifully, I'd had little to do with it. At both DJK and ZUEL, things like my visa, work permit, health insurance and so on, was all done for me.
My only direct personal experience had been with China Post - the government-run service. This was back in November of 2005 - I wanted to send a Christmas card to my daughter in the UK.
In China you can't just stick a stamp on something and post it. It's more complicated than that. A group of students took me to a China Post branch in order to do this "job". The people running the branch were surly, unhelpful and very, very slow. It took over an hour to post one envelope.
I was reminded of the old Soviet joke amongst the proles: "We pretend to work; they pretend to pay us."
My daughter received her Christmas card in mid-January 2006.
It doesn't seem to matter what country we are talking about or what stage of development it has reached. When the provision of any good or service is socialized the result is always terrible. Not only this, but the behaviour of employees is always the same. Not exactly service with a smile.
It's a good thing they're not forced to say, "Have a nice day", to everyone. Can you imagine those words coupled with an expression of utter boredom and contempt?
In the private sector people must smile when they say it – whether they mean it or not – and usually, I think, they do. This is because people in the private sector are "nicer". It's not that they are actually "nicer" – it's just that they have to be.
A student once told me that if you do the same thing every day for twenty five consecutive days it becomes a habit. She said this was a "scientific fact".
I don't know how true this is but I suppose being nice to people can become a habit. And who knows, the people who you smile at this week, could turn out to be your customers next week. And maybe, just maybe, once the habit becomes ingrained, it starts to extend beyond the workplace – to family, friends and even strangers.
Workers in either sector don't start out so different - but end up being very different.
At base, the reasons for this are very simple.
In the private sector you are there to serve customers. They pay you directly. You are directly accountable to them. If they don't like what's being served up, or the way it's served up, you won't see them again.
Keep it up and you work yourself out of a job.
This is part of what is meant by free market competition.
In the public sector it doesn't work like this. A socialized service is funded, ideally, by taxpayers and administered through multiple layers of bureaucracy.
The direct link between provider and customer is broken.
If you're a wage slave in the public sector there's confusion about who you actually work for.
Is it the taxpayers you serve or the bureaucrats who pay you?
Who should you seek to please first.?
If the service is rotten where does accountability lie?
It's very difficult to pinpoint - each layer will point at the other
Socialized industries, by a combination of their nature and human nature, will always grow - will always become larger and larger and ever more complicated.
Build the job around yourself, set up buffer zones and walls, more rules, more regulations, more procedures, bring in more and more people – the more complex and impenetrable everything becomes the better.
No-one really knows how the whole thing works. All they know is their "bit" of it. All they care about is their "bit" of it. This is what they must protect.
No-one wants to do anything, to change anything, or to take a risk.
And why should they? Where's the incentive?
Want to move up in the organization? Forget about it. Only a very rare and scary type of carpet-bagger has the rat-like cunning it takes to make it upwards.
"Safety" and "security" – these are your by-words.
You may not have much of a job, but at least it's a job - with a regular pay cheque. Keep your head down, watch what you say, observe protocol and, above all, never make a decision about anything, not unless you've got a scapegoat lined up – just in case.
The thing inevitably stagnates - along with the people who work in it.
One final question: what about the so-called "customers"?
Answer: They have no comeback and no choice. We can be as lazy, inefficient, off-hand and downright rude as we like. Nobody, from top to bottom, actually gives a crap. In short, they can like it or lump it.
Which brings me to my unfortunate episode.
All I wanted was a driving licence.
I'd actually started dreaming about having a car again. Just getting in the thing, sitting back and turning the key. Heading off when I felt like it. Freedon from the hassle of taxis, buses, trains and all the rest of it.
Once I'd wrapped up the semester I began my quest in earnest.
First step. Exchange my UK licence for an international licence.
First problem. This was not allowed in Wuhan.
Unbelievably, if I wanted a licence in Wuhan, I would have to do the whole thing from scratch – finishing by taking an actual driving test!.
OK. So be it.
To get the process going I first had to get the appropriate paperwork.
A Chinese teacher offered to help, "just to make things easier". Our first port of call was the campus police station. After waiting ages while they pretended to be busy I was given a piece of paper and told to get it stamped and signed at another police station.
When we got there we found the same non-work thing going on. After hanging around for ages we got the thing stamped and signed.
Back to the campus. More hanging around.
Cut a long story short, they gave us another piece of paper and told us we had to go somewhere else to get another stamp and signature.
And on it went.
The Chinese teacher told me I had to be patient. If I complained they'd really get serious about stretching the thing out.
Two weeks of my "holiday" later, armed with lots of pieces of paper, all duly stamped and certified, not sure what any of them meant, I walked into a monolithic government building on the other side of Wuchang.
By this stage it was all beginning to wear a bit thin.
After hours of waiting I was finally "seen" by someone. More form-filling, more photographs, another eyesight test, handing over yet more cash and so on.
I thought the nonsense was over when I signed one last piece of paper - followed by my thumbprint.
It reminded me of a giant full stop. But no, the nonsense was only just beginning.
I was led into a computer room and sat in front of a terminal. They told me that I had to do my highway code test. This consisted of one hundred multiple choice questions. Time allowed one hour. Pass mark 90.
I tried to explain that there were two big problems.
First, I had never so much as laid eyes on the Chinese highway code and second, the test was all in Chinese script – I could barely speak the language – let alone read it!
But they were very insistent. They said they had a huge backlog to get through. And anyway, I had already applied to do the thing and paid for it.
This was news to me.
I did the multiple guess test. The result was printed out straight away.
Thirty one percent.
I'm not sure why I felt dejected by this score but I did.
I thought of Glen back in DJK. He had a motorbike. He told me he'd dropped an official 3,000 RMB to get his licence. At this point I would have gladly done the same.
I grabbed my collection of papers and left. Any ambition to drive in China had begun to ebb. A few weeks later it was gone. This may have been a blessing in disguise.
The only consistent advice I'd heard from foreigners in China was: "Don't drive. If you have an accident you'll get the blame; whether it's your fault or not – and you're going to have to pay – and pay big time."
I'd heard this so many times there had to be some truth in it.
I remember leaving the building and walking down the front steps. It was a miserably cold and windy day.
I was feeling a bit down in the mouth.
I got a taxi to take me back to my overlarge, freezing, empty apartment.
I thought about stopping on the way and picking up a bottle of bai jiu. Fortunately, before I had the chance, I received a text message. It was an invite to meet up with a couple of foreigners for a bite to eat. Normally I wouldn't have bothered, but the way I was feeling I was in need of some company.
I went straight there.
One of the foreigners was an American called Kell. The other was a Brit called Phil.
Kell was about my age. I'm not too sure what he did back home but I don't think he'd been in China for that long. Without doubt, he was one of the most argumentative men I'd ever met - but still very likeable for all that.
Phil had left the UK sometime in his mid-twenties. The next twenty plus years were spent working and travelling all over the world.
While the rest of us chose to go into careers, get married, buy houses, have kids and put down roots, he had chosen to weigh anchor and head for the open sea.
Who'd made the best choice?
Decisions and consequences
Swings and roundabouts.
Impossible to say.
Anyway, as we chatted they told me about their holiday plans. They were going to head for Thailand. When I told them I was going to spend the time reading they thought I was nuts.
Phil said that with so many fascinating places in my backyard, like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Singapore, why would I want to spend nearly two months staring at a computer screen?
At least take a couple of weeks out?
Before I knew what was happening I was going with them. Phil took care of all the arrangements.
About two weeks later I got up early and packed the last of my things. The taxi for the airport honked outside. I did a quick check around the flat to make sure everything was locked up and switched off.
You could have used many words to describe my apartment – but the word "home" was not one of them. Maybe the word "shell" would have been the most accurate.
I couldn't help wondering how one person living alone could make such a mess? I had turned my beautiful appartment into a tip. It looked as cold and lonely as I felt at that moment.
I decided to get some cleaners in when I returned.
The taxi driver honked again.
I grabbed my luggage and slammed the front door behind me. I really didn't want to go travelling but there it was - everything had been arranged and paid for – no way out.
I set off reluctantly. But this reluctance, bordering on indifference, didn't last too long. Four days into my holiday I met someone. It went a bit like this:
Something which I had almost given up on was just about to begin.