Gorilla Off My Back

“How many items were there in the written test?,” he asked.

My underarms were slick with sweat. My friend who worked in a driving school warned me beforehand: One wrong answer and you will be disqualified from the application process. They are particularly wary of Filipinos, and with good reason: there is a place in Manila called Recto where you can easily custom order forgeries of any official document, including driver’s licenses. But this is absurd. How can they expect me to remember a small detail from two decades ago?

“I’m very sorry. I do not remember. It was almost 20 years ago when I took the test,” I replied honestly.

“Try to remember. How many items?” He was not going to let me off the hook.

“Twenty years ago is a long time. I honestly do not remember.” I tried again.

“You must remember.” He said more slowly, “How many items were there in the paper test?”

I do not even remember where I took the test but I do remember it being a small room with an air conditioner going. Funny how our memories work, remembering some details but not others. It could not have been a long test, or I would remember it being a tedious one. I tried hard to visualize the answer sheet and saw four rows of ten.

“Uhm… I don’t know. Maybe 40 questions?”

“That’s right!,” he said.

How lucky can one get? The only thing missing, he said, is the official receipt of my Philippine driver’s license. “Bring that next time and you can move on to the next step,” he said. That was in April 2015.

Back when we were living in Tokyo, it never occurred to me to get a Japanese driver’s license. Public transportation was convenient, even with two small kids in tow. Having a car was more inconvenient because the roads are too narrow, traffic often bad, and parking too expensive and sometimes hard to find. When we moved out to the countryside though, I found life without a car tough. Trains and buses come by once or twice an hour (woe to you if you miss it by seconds) and stores are spaced farther out. I biked everywhere with my two kids (one seated in a child seat at the back and one strapped to me on a baby carrier), which was fine when they were 1 and 3 years old respectively but they, of course, were growing bigger and heavier every day. Last I checked, my 3 year old son who’s still strapped to me in a baby carrier was already 15 kg (Hello Ergo, the strongest baby carrier in the market), while my 5 year old daughter who still sits in the child seat at the back was already 20 kg. Now imagine all three of us on a bike. Add to that two backpacks and two bulky children’s futons and blankets piled high on the front basket as we bike to their nursery school on Mondays. We were a sight. Not so amusing though on rainy and snowy days.

I was dependent on my husband to drive us to places that were too far for me to bike. I became good at planning around when he was home. Still, it was very frustrating to have less options. If we were to continue living out here in the countryside, I must get my Japanese driver’s license.

I began asking around. It seems like the cheapest option would be to apply for my Philippine Driver’s License to be converted (or what is called Gaimen Kirikae 外免切替). If I were to do it from scratch and apply at a Japanese driving school, it could cost me as much as ¥300,000 (roughly $2,600) and take a month or so of intensive classes. It wouldn’t hurt to give conversion a try.

In September of 2014, I asked a friend in Manila to help me get my Certificate of License from the Department of Transportation and Communications Land Transportation Office and to have this document certified by the Department of Foreign Affairs. Why a government issued document needs to be certified by another government office is baffling, or maybe not (see note on Recto in second paragraph). My friend mailed these documents to me. I then mailed these documents to the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) to have them translated to Japanese for the price of ¥3,392 (+ a mailing fee of ¥591). Why it cost this much when they probably have templates of translations of licenses from all countries is baffling too.

When I had all the documents, I planned a trip to the nearest driving license center, Konosu. From my home, it takes about two hours, three trains (costing a little less than ¥1000), and two buses to get to Konosu (throw in an extra 30 minutes since I prefer to bike and walk instead of spending ¥400 for two bus rides) — that is one way. Traveling time to and from Konosu eats up at 5 hours of my day. This small detail about how much time and money it costs to get to the center and back will be significant later in the story.

After my first trip to Konosu in April 2015 (in which I was asked how many items were in the written test 20 years ago), it wasn’t until December 29, 2015 that I went back with the official receipt and the rest of my documents to continue the process. It took that long as I just didn’t feel prepared enough for the practical test. Friends recommended studying the tips on the “supermelf” website, but I knew that having driven on the left hand side all my life, switching to driving on the right hand side involves a huge perception and habit change (for example, I kept turning the windshield wipers on when I wanted to make a turn.) I was only able to actually drive a right hand side car one week before December 29 at our neighbor’s parking lot (the only space I’m legally allowed to since it’s not a public road).

I passed the 10 question true or false written test easily (You would too! Here’s a sample question: You had a few drinks at a party but feel quite fine. It’s okay to drive home. True or false.). Despite having memorized the “supermelf” website cited tips, I failed the practical test. My major offense was going over the curb at the very tight S-curve and lifting my hands off the steering wheel to point at which mirrors I was checking. I was willing to give the test another try.

The earliest I could retake the test was January 4, 2016. New year, fresh beginnings. I felt good about going again. I woke up early to get to Konosu in time for the morning test. I paid the ¥2,200 testing fee again. I drove smoothly and went through the S-curve without any problem. As I exited the S-curve, which was only halfway through the test course, the proctor said, “I’m sorry, it’s a pity, but I have to ask you to stop here and go back to the platform.” I was crushed. What did I do wrong? I thought I nailed it this time. The proctor said that I drove too fast around the corners and that I did not stay left enough and right enough in the proper places.

The driver’s license center offers one-hour lessons on the very same driving test course on Saturdays. I went to inquire about it. The first lesson for the year will be on April 16. They begin accepting reservations for this class a month before but you would have to come back in person (phone reservations not accepted). That would be March 16. I tried to reschedule a retake of the driving test in mid-March so that in case I fail the test, I could schedule a lesson right there but the latest possible they could schedule a retake of the test was February 29.

Early morning of February 29, I did not feel like going to Konosu. It’s Leap Day, my husband said, which might turn out to be my lucky day. I was not so sure. When I got to the center (another ¥2,200 in testing fee), I was the only one applying for license conversion that day. Maybe it is a lucky day. Hopefully, with less people, the test proctors will not be as harried. Again, I drove smoothly and again, as I exited the S-curve, the proctor said, “I’m sorry but please drive back to the platform.” This time, the test proctor said I drove too slow.

That was it. I gave it my best shot three times and failed. Friends consoled me saying it really is very difficult to pass the test. Some people have taken the test 18 times. My brain automatically did the math on how much it would cost in testing fees and train fares to take the test 18 times. Someone told me she passed the test after she cried in front of the test proctor. Another said that she and some others passed the test after making a show of asking the other people in the testing room quite loudly how many times they have failed the test. Must I resort to such theatrics to pass the test? I couldn’t help but suspect there was discrimination working against me.

As I walked home after failing the third time and thinking about giving up, I thought about the various things I could do:

Maybe I should buy an expensive electric bicycle. I could go anywhere with a little electric help.

Maybe I should move to the UK and live there for three months and get my driver’s license there, then when I come back to Japan, I can just convert the UK license without taking the stupid test.

Maybe I should write a petition letter. I really am the most cautious and careful driver and my biking with two kids in narrow sidewalk-less roads is dangerous both to us and to other vehicles. Maybe my friends can testify and sign my petition.

I was very angry. Everywhere I looked, I saw crazy careless drivers on the road. Drivers who were texting on their phone, eating, and reading comics while driving. One afternoon, my kids and I almost got run over by car rushing past a red light. And all these people were granted licenses. I would never ever do any of these things. The practical test does not do a good job of weeding out careful or careless drivers. It only tests how well you can conform to a very specific way of driving.

March rolled by and my anger and frustration mellowed as it was bound to with time. I suppose my curiosity also got the better of me. What is the “correct” way of driving and what have I been doing wrong? On March 17, I went to Konosu to make a reservation for a driving lesson for April 16. I scheduled a retest for April 18, the Monday after the lesson.

Another month rolled by. April 16, Saturday. I went to Konosu for the 50-minute driving lesson (¥6,156 tax included). The instructor asked me to drive the test course. When we got back to the platform, he listed all the things I did wrong. I practiced twice more around the test course. On the fourth round, he drove and showed me how he would do it if he were to take the test. It occurred to me that I could never ever even hope to pass the test without this lesson. The “correct” way to drive was extremely specific. Pump the brake exactly twice and with a particular rhythm (one… two) when you want to stop. He showed me how left I have to be when I am to execute a left turn (i.e. left wheels should be almost touching the end of the black asphalt and the beginning of the whiter gutter). He showed me the precise moments and places where my right foot should be hovering over the brakes and not the accelerator even though I wasn’t stepping on it. After the lesson, I felt more hopeful.

That Monday, I was in a space quite different from the previous times I have taken the test. You just have to do exactly what you did last Saturday. You know what to do, I told myself. Still I was more nervous than I ever was before. My knees felt weak going down the steps to the test vehicle. When we got past the S-curve, the place where I got stopped three times in the past, the test proctor waved me on to continue with the course. This is going really well. I drove all the way to the starting point and prepared to park by the curb. Suddenly, the proctor rammed hard on his brake and barked at me to move away from the curb. This is it. I committed a major violation and he was going to fail me. All that effort for nothing. The proctor lectured me on why it was dangerous to park that close to the curb (I was afraid I wasn’t close enough!). He then turned over my application form and drew an intersection. He said that I changed lanes right in the middle of the intersection which is a no-no. I managed to hold back my tears. “Here, take this number and wait upstairs. You passed the test but be careful when you drive on the roads.” I scratched my head as I went back upstairs wondering if I heard him correctly.

Finally getting my license was unexpectedly anticlimactic and unceremonious considering the time, effort and stress I went through.

“That’s a monkey off your back, no?” said my husband.

“No, Hon, it’s a gorilla off my back. And she can sit in the back seat as long as she got a seatbelt on.”

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