During my time in the office I have overheard very little. The spoken language is often thick with dialect and regional sayings, not to mention the problem of speed.

Occasionally I am able to jump into conversations. Granted the good fortune of gracious patience on part of English teachers, sometimes I am included as an active observer of conversation and even given a chance to include my own insight or some information about America relative to whatever topic is being discussed.

Last week the topic was getting a driver’s license. In America we dream of this moment, which comes when we turn 16, after a year of precise and cruel instruction on the part of your father who, no matter how angry he gets, is only trying to prevent you from killing yourself or anyone else in the future. Or at least that was my experience.

In China it is different. To have a car, one must have money. To have money, one must have a steady job. That’s why drivers are often beginning to drive when they are in their twenties or thirties. Many of the English department staff recently received their license, and their reflections on this process are vivid, if not understandably frustrating.

During this conversation I continually heard one phrase being used with contempt and so I asked about it. Both teachers looked at one another and tried to think of the English translation. “It’s something you do when you’re driving…no, not when you’re driving, when you’re going to stop driving.” I looked at her with a confused expression. “Like parking when one car is here and another car is here,” she explained, with a crude drawing to make things more clear.

“Oh! Parallel parking!” I exclaimed, happy to know that this was something we shared regardless of culture.

Evidently everyone dreaded this part of the test. But we all know that story.

When the teachers began talking of the licensing process I was drawn in further. The process is simple: Fail the test, fail the test, and then pass the test. The first test is free, so it would be silly if people merely passed it: they wouldn’t be contributing any money that way. As a result, the examination officer will find any excuse not to pass students, even if they are skilled drivers. Subsequent tests require a fee of somewhere between 250 and 300 yuan (I forgot the exact amount). Passing the second test is much easier because people had to pay money, but the examination officer will not hesitate to fail applicants if they do not perform well. The third test is like getting an honorary doctorate or being a big donor to a cause: there are special rights extended to these people. The examination suddenly becomes much easier. Provided that the examinee does not destroy any property or kill anyone during the test, they will pass.

When I asked them about this the teachers acknowledged that the process was corrupt, but that there was little they could do about it. It didn’t bother them because they have been playing this kind of game all their lives with guanxi. Private relationships are all about guanxi – who do you know, what can you get based on who you know? This elaborate system will continue when the people you know come calling on you for return favors. The entire system perpetuates itself because people feel obligated (as a manifestation of culture) to repay their guanxi debt. The licensing process is nothing more than public guanxi: you pay and we’ll give you what you need.

This issue runs deeper, with social problems such as bribery permeating all aspects of life (including college admission and elections).

So it may not matter how well one can parallel park if they make one other mistake during the examination. The examination official may ask them to keep driving around, waiting for the mistake they need to justify failure. Or it may be the 3rd testing round, after the examinee has jumped the curb and knocked over a garbage can, when the official calmly steps out of the car and hands the driver a certificate of passing.

Money, it seems, is sometimes more important than performance.

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