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Road Rage Against The Machine
by Johnny Bravo


I drive in Korea everyday. Yet, I have no Korean driver's license. My international license expired as did my California license, so…I have no valid driver's license of any kind. Furthermore, there is no license plate on my bike, so for me, the mere act of starting my motorbike and getting on the road is, in effect, breaking the law.

Breaking the Law…Breaking the Law eh eh. Judas Priest never sounded better.

Some say laws are made to be broken. Others say, laws are what protect us from anarchy. Laws and strict enforcement are integral to establishing order; that is the general opinion. Many Americans believe there should be no gun laws. Others believe there should stricter gun control. And all the while, we are the shooting death capital of the world. Boo yeah!

I decided, after banging my head to Judas Priest that, I want to be legal. Since I bought my bike from a shop, I returned to the shop that I bought my bike and asked the owner how to get my bike legalized. He said don't worry about it. I said to him in my broken Korean that I was told, all I need is paperwork on the bike and I could go to the DMV and…he interrupted me to repeat, don't worry about it, in Korean. I understood.

At least I tried. But I thought, even if I can't get my bike legal, I can still legalize myself.

I went to the Seoul DMV (Department of motor vehicles) and inquired about getting a Korean license. I was living in Seoul at the time. This was 4 years ago. Perhaps laws have changed since then. They often do. This was 2002, year of the horse. I waited in a short line and then stood looking at an older woman behind the counter and I smiled and politely inquired about getting a Korean driver's license. She asked me if I had a valid license from my home country b/c with that I could be issued a Korean license for one year. I reached for my wallet and handed her my expired California ID, hoping she wouldn't notice the date. She did, but she told me that I could take a written test and get a license. Considering the fact that I'd been driving for almost 20 years and that they had tests in English I thought great. No problem. She gave me a little booklet of Korean driving laws (in English) and an appointment to take the test. It was a Monday, my appointment was for the following Thursday. I never realized they were so backed up on license acquisitions. In LA, the lines may take up to an hour, but you can always test on that same day. It's very casual, costs 10 dollars and takes about 15 to 30 minutes, depending on your knowledge of driving. Also, there is no classroom; you just find an empty counter. Oh, you could cheat if you wanted, but it's really just common sense and basic rules of the road, so no one ever does. And you can have your score the same day, just walk the finished test to a counter (after waiting in a shorter line) and they will mark it right in front of you. Furthermore, if you pass, they will give you an interim license right then and there to use until they can mail you a real card with a photo that they will also take that day. Getting a license in America takes about 1-2 hours, depending on the time of arrival and even without appointment. This wasn't LA. It would take more than a day. Still, I left the Seoul office in good spirits.

Later that week, I had an adult class and was talking to my student, a KBS reporter, about driver's licenses and he said point blank, "You're going to fail the test." I shot back, "What makes you say that?" His reply was that older experienced drivers who, for some reason, have to take the test, usually fail the first time, but young people who just took a preparation class at a driving academy and have never driven a day in their life usually pass. I found that hard to believe, until I took the test.

I arrived at the DMV on that Thursday and was shown to a classroom with about 40 other people (all Korean). It looked very serious and somber and professional like the SAT. In any event, I was early and had to pee so I left to find a restroom and when I returned, the door was locked. They wouldn't let me enter. Apparently, this WAS an important exam; no latecomers would be admitted, even if it was only about 40 seconds after the hour and I had already been inside. They made me reschedule. Yes, I put up a fight, but it was futile and before I did or said anything that would trigger rebuke with repercussions I accepted a date to retake the test on the following Monday. I had already paid 5 thousand won, and I would have to pay another 5 thousand (5 US).

So cut to a few days later. I'm seated, VERY well prepared, and the test begins. A proctor walks the room as if this were not just any test, but something gravely serious. It was about 20 minutes into the test that I understood what my reporter friend had meant. In America, the written test is 20 questions. They are all either common sense, or simple road laws: speed limits and such. In Korea, the drivers test is 50 multiple choice questions and the majority are what I call, trick questions. Most of them have nothing to do with driving at all. For example, #22: the person who has the authority to grant you a license is a) the chief of police b) the mayor of the city c) the head of the DMV d) The President of South Korea e) none of the above.

They were all like that. #38 Should you witness a car stalled at the side of the road, you should never a)stop and try to help, b) call for help, c) call the police, d) keep driving e) who cares! You get my point. It was the craziest test I ever took. Of course I failed it. None of those questions were in the booklet. And none of them had to do with driving!

Again, I will say, I failed the test, but I learned something more important. I'm an English teacher at the college level. Many graduating college students are concerned about their TOEIC scores. TOEIC is a standardized test of English grammar, reading comprehension and listening. Most large companies demand that their prospective employees have a reasonably high TOEIC score, even if the job requires absolutely no English ability whatsoever. And because of this requirement, it is a fact, that many young adults in Korea not only enroll in TOEIC preparation classes and furiously study TOEIC test preparation, but they take and retake their actual TOEIC test in order to have a better score so to further their job getting ability.

It is also a well know fact (or opinion) that if a Korean youngster spends say 5 - 10 years living in Canada or some English speaking country and then returns to Korea as a college student, fluent in English, he will probably not do as well on his TOEIC test as a Korean who has never been abroad, can't speak English at all, but has studied TOEIC preparation.

Which basically means that the TOEIC test, which is so important to a 20 something person trying to get a job, is not really a measure of English ability, but rather, a measure of their test taking ability. And it also means that large companies, in their pursuit of excellence, or rather qualified candidates for employment, would rather hire recent graduates who can prove their English knowledge on a standardized test than by actually being able to speak English.

Which gets back to driving ? any 45 year old Korean man, let alone a 36 year old American who's been driving for 20+ years and knows how to drive, should be given a license without weeks of testing procedure. The fact that he can't pass the most ridiculous of testing, given the jumping-through-hoops parameters and ridiculousness of questions only points to the fact that most drivers on the road in Korea are not qualified to drive in the real world, but are qualified to receive a driving certificate, just like most Korean college graduates who possess a 900+ TOEIC score can not really speak or understand English in the real world.

Is real life experience more important than test scores? Or is test scores a more accurate appraisal of one's ability. Language is a matter of ability to express oneself in spoken or written discourse. Driving ability is the ability to navigate one's vehicle safely between points A and B. That is all. But maybe, I'm wrong. I have been known to be wrong. Perhaps language and driving ability have only to do with the ability to pass a written, multiple choice test. Perhaps laws are what keep people in order. And perhaps safe driving and the ability to communicate have nothing to do with order.

It leads a person a person to wonder, why do Koreans have a separate license for those who can drive a standard (stick shift) car and an automatic (manual transmission)? And why can hardly any young adult in this country speak functional English when they've all studied English for over 10 years, or for that matter, why can so few parallel park without assistance?


June 25, 2006