Unexpected Journeys

When was the last time you took a risk (big or small), and pushed your own boundaries — socially, professionally, or otherwise?

When I graduated from high school a few months ago, I immediately jumped to another. Driving school.

Now yes, it is probably more rare these days to find an adult who can’t drive than one who can, so they all make it feel like going on the road isn’t that big of a deal at all. Risk? Sure, the whole you are more likely to die in a car accident than by a gun statistics are out there, but car rides have become so embedded in our everyday lives that often we don’t give a second thought.

However, for someone like me who has an irrational fear of biking in a city, driving is kind of a big deal. It’s not that I don’t know how to bike: I can navigate bike paths perfectly fine, and I have had no traumatic biking experience that has kept me off the streets (as of yet). But I just never really trusted my own maneuvering abilities in the crowded Taipei cities full of zigzagging motorcycles and intense drivers who don’t yield to pedestrians. So, for me, the independence that driving promises (supplementing the awesome public transportation we have — shoutout to the Taipei government), is a big step.

The legal age to obtain a learner’s permit here is 18, which coincides with the legal age to drink AND vote in a referendum. So basically, February 7th comes along and while I don’t feel any different, I can now do almost everything! As a result, my driving school has no shortage of newly graduated high school seniors, starting their aspiring race-car driving career zooming along in the school’s practice lanes at the incredible speed of 3 miles per hour.

They all say that Taiwan is one of the notoriously hard places to pass this test. These are the steps that must be passed, and in this exact order. You may not proceed onto the next step until you have successfully completed the previous one.

Health check — just to test your basic motor skills and vision.

Written test — of the 40 questions, you must score above a 85% on identifying road signs and knowing some quite obscure fining regulations. (For instance, I now know that I can be fined 3000 NTD — around 100 USD — for checking my phone while driving, even though the police will not stop me for purposes of not obstructing traffic, but will only take a picture of me in the act.)

Road Test, Part 1 — this part is done inside a set track within training grounds, and you must score above 70 points. (Something like forgetting a turn signal during the process is an automatic deduction of 32 points, so you would immediately have to get out of the car and try again in maybe two weeks.) The inner course consists of a few items:

  1. Parallel Parking — very much harder than it looks.
  2. Backing up and turning around a corner, to park into a box — so they teach us by telling us to turn the steering wheel an exact number of turns as soon as the door handle passes a certain pole on the course. In other words, I still have no idea how to do this irl.
  3. S-shape curve, driving both in and out — this one almost killed me. The DAY BEFORE THE TEST I still buzzed (-32 points!!) when I drove into the curve; turns out my posture had been wrong THE WHOLE TIME.
  4. Straight-line driving, where you cannot touch the white lines delineating a very narrow road. Kind of pointless testing item when you don’t have to shift gears.
  5. Climbing a hill, temporarily stopping, and coming down again.

Road Test, Part 2 — congratulations, you have reached the last part of the test: real driving on the road! Again, cutoff score is 70 points. At my road course, the main items tested include:

  1. Driving on an expressway at around 40 miles per hour.
  2. Changing lanes and accomplishing a U-turn.
  3. Temporary parking — and very very narrowly swerving out before hitting the curb.

Driving class every other day could have been an extremely tedious chore, if not for my coach David. A former restaurant owner, he closed down his shop and came to this driving place to help out some relatives in their time of need. In his spare time, he takes tons of pictures of us attempting the various driving maneuvers, and makes them into these sweet little videos (which invariably end with some motivating aphorism). The day before our test, he even vlogged me and my driving companion as we joked and giggled through our full-course runthrough, then posted it for other classmates to see. His favorites collections, of course, are the pictures of his students beaming with their new driver’s licenses!

Apart from that, he also takes his students on special outside excursions (which I believe some other coaches do not approve of, but which makes me like him even more). As soon as I was able to decently control the vehicle, he allowed me to drive from the course all the way home. And then a few days later, he accompanied me on an hour-long mountain tour, which involved tons of winding and unfamiliar paths, as well as beautiful views that I was unable to appreciate because I dared not allow my eyes to stray from the road.

A boundary I was not expecting to stretch — but thankfully did, though — was my social one. Driving class gives the impression of conquering an individual challenge: just you, yourself, and the wheel. And your turn signals — DO NOT forget your turn signals — 32 points! But surprisingly, my turn signals were not the only friends I ended up making. From my first day of class, I was paired with a woman with a super sweet smile, who took line-by-line notes of everything word our coach said. It was obvious that she was diligent, but only over the weeks did I gradually find out just how much. It turned out that she enrolled in driving school only in her last months of her MBA program. During the first few weeks of driving class, she would rush straight back to her university afterwards, a 90 minute commute away, to finish her thesis work. In the weeks that I got to know her, she successfully passed her oral defense, and graduated! Someone once told me that starting a conversation with anyone was a risk. Well, this one paid off big time. The last time we met at the driving course, we went out for lunch, and she gave me the most heartfelt advice about college and love. I never expected driving class to be the place for me to expand my social circle beyond the homogeneity of high-school friendships and truly connect with people from all walks of life.

Overall, this whole driving journey definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone, in the most unexpectedly fun way possible. And thankfully, I ended up with this wonderful picture for David to add to his collection!

My driver’s licence, thanks to David!