Rewind a few days. As the date of his transfer to a far off office atop one of the steepest hills known to man draws closer, Panda finally gives in and decides that despite having made it for the past two years without a car, it has finally come time to grow up, get a driver’s license and join the smokey automotive masses stuck in traffic jams every morning.
I have an American driver’s license of course, but I haven’t really driven in the last four years – not since my sophmore year of university. Fortunately, being unfettered by the constraints of common sense, I don’t let little details like that stop me, and I ring up the local DMV and make an appointment to take my driving exam.
But first things first. If you’re American and you want to convert your American driving license into a Japanese one, first you need to get it translated. Of course, this being Japan, not just anyone can translate your driver’s license – you need to send your license to a nearby branch of the “Japan Automobile Federation”, which will, for a rather steep fee, “translate” your license into Japanese.*
So I get my translation, gather up the other required paperwork (passport, ID card, American driver’s license, horrible mug shots taken at the local photobooth, an envelope full of cash…) and then schedule an appointment at the very convenient time slot of 1pm on a Tuesday afternoon. I say “convenient”, but actually that’s the only possible time slot, because unlike in America, the Japanese DMV apparently only feels the need to work from 1:00-1:30pm Monday-Friday – you know, when most gainfully employed people are smack in the middle of their day… This unfortunately neccessitates taking an entire day off of work as well since in continuing with the “convenience” theme, the DMV also happens to be located in the middle of some very overgrown-looking rice paddies, miles away from the nearest form of public transportation (useful if you’re a government agency aimed primarily at serving those members of the public who can’t legally drive yet…!), though situated next to the local equestrian club, useful in case you decide to rethink the whole car thing and maybe go the old school “pony ‘n buggy” route.
I get into the DMV, pass my vision check and an oddly translated written test without incident, the latter featuring questions like “is it not correct to perform a turn to the letf (sic) in a condition where such a prohibited sign is being?“. Afterwards, I’m sitting in the lobby when a very official looking man comes up to me and hands me a map of the course.
Instructor: “Panda Michael-san?”
Instructor: “Here is the map of today’s route. Please take your time to remember the map. But also please hurry up.”
(glances meaningfully at his wrist watch)
Panda: “uhhh…. okay. Be right there.
Unlike American road tests which are conducted on the street, in Japan you have to take your practical test on a purpose built DMV obstacle course. Theoretically this should be easier, but in practice, it’s much more difficult. There are several complex portions of the course – a tight S-curve lined with ditches (if you fall in, you automatically fail), a few blind intersections, and the dreaded crank. The crank basically consists of two sharp 90 degree turns one after the other surrounded on all sides by tall iron bars hanging from chains. You have to pass through the crank without going off the road and without touching any of the iron bars – if you do, you automatically fail. It doesn’t help matters much that your test car is a ponderous V-8 powered taxi-cab-esque monster sporting with multiple flying-buttressed mirrors and a high back end with a trunk big enough to stuff more than a couple bodies into should the need arise. Think like a classic 1950′s Cadillac Eldorado, only with more subdued taillights – then imagine navigating that through aforementioned crank surrounded on all sides by swinging iron bars.
What was supposed to happen…
Compounding the issue is the fact that you have to memorize the exact route you’re supposed to take in this automotive version of Most Extreme Elimination Challenge from hell – you’re not supposed to stop to consult the map or ask the instructor for directions once you start up the car. Reading between the instructor’s not-so-subtle lines, I quickly attempt to cram the entirety of the course map into my brain as fast as possible as he stands off to the side power smoking a cigarette from intact to singed butt in well under two minutes. Tossing it aside, he glances up at me.
“Ready to go?”
“Uhh, yeah, I guess.”
And with that, we’re off. In my defense, I start off well enough – remembered to check under the car for small kids before getting in, adjust all my mirrors, check in the bike area in the rear left before making a left hand turn onto the course, exaggerate all my mirror-looking gestures and let out a small “yoooosshhhh” every now and again just to let him know I’m on top of things. Then suddenly, not more than 45 seconds into the test, my brain apparently decides that it would like to take a little vacation, which just about brings us back to the exposition of this entry.
Here, using the supar advanced imaging technologies available to The House of Panda, I have recreated what was supposed to happen above. Below, however you can see what actually happened:
Trust me, this is bad. You’ll see why below…
The dialogue, in turn, went something like this:
Instructor: “Next, do the S-curve, then execute a left hand turn, drive up to the intersection, and then stop.”
Instructor: *sighs, puts away clipboard*
“Uhh… in Japan we drive on the left hand side of the road…”
For my American readers back home wondering what’s going on, allow me to explain. I was so nervous trying to remember which way to go next, what obstacle I had to do, if I had checked the bike lane already or not, that instincts just took over and without thinking I automatically pulled into the right hand lane, which is great if you’re in America, but pretty much about the most idiotic thing you can do if you’re taking a driving test in Japan, where they drive on the left hand side of the road.
Sitting there at the intersection, so very, very wrong it actually physically hurt to confront my stupidity, there was nothing I could do except just share the instructor’s sigh and smack my head against the (thankfully padded) steering wheel. You know, there’s really nothing you can say if you’re dumb enough to pull into what – if this had been a real street – would have been directly into oncoming traffic. That’s like being bitch-slapped by The Black Jesus and when he pulls his hand away, you’ve got the imprint of his pimp ring on your forehead and it reads “You Fail At Life”. It’s like trying to play Russian Roulette with a semi-automatic pistol instead of a revolver and volunteering to go first. To use a natural selection Darwinistic analogy, if I was part of a pack of gazelles, and we were being chased by a ravenous lion, it’d be like all the other gazelles leapt safely away off to the side, and I turned and ran smack into the only tree in the entire savanah, got knocked out and got eaten. And man, if you’re that dumb, you deserve to be taken out of the genepool…!
It goes without saying that I failed. Sheepishly heading back to the parking area, I got out of the car and stumbled up the stairs in deep and unabiding shame, slumping into my chair as the instructor – barely stifling a guffaw as he walked past me – barely manages to close the door to the office before bursting out with “you won’t believe what this last guy just did….” followed by snorts and chortles from all the staff within, a nice laugh to finish up that grueling 30 minute workday. Finally, one of them comes up to the window, face still red and tears of laughter still drying on his cheeks and asks me “would I like to schedule another test?”
The next attempt is in a week, and providence willing, I may try and get out to the practice course for a few laps before embarassing myself once again. But man, I’ll tell you, it’s going to be hard to live this down – after all, how many times in your life do you get a message straight from the heavens themselves that reads so very very bluntly “YOU ARE SO STUPID IT HURTS”…?
And that folks, is how Panda failed his driving exam.
Worn me down like a road.
I did everything you told.
Worn me down to my knees.
I did everything to please you.
But you can’t stop thinking about her.
No, you can’t stop thinking about her…