After stupidly darting around Gwangju on a motorcycle without a proper driver’s license, I finally had the time to make myself official yesterday by going to the DMV about 30 minutes from our apartment in a town called Naju.
In Korea, at least as a foreigner, I was able to register my bike and buy insurance by only showing them my foreign ID. I didn’t even show my American license. I am not sure what could have happened had I wrecked or been pulled over, but I was willing to believe that the Korean police (made up almost entirely of recent high school graduates doing their 2 year military service) would have mercy on the ignorant foreigner.
Americans are required to take a written and eye test to get a Korean license because neither government recognizes the other’s license. Canadians here are able to transfer their Canadian license for a Korean one without taking the test. Even though my day wasn’t too difficult, their DMV experiences are much better.
Yesterday was a terrible day to ride 30 minutes on a bike at 55mph. It was cold, windy and it seemed it was going to rain at any moment(though it didn’t all day). Not only did the weather damper my mood, but I was also about 3 hrs away from giving a talk on gender and race in US politics at the local International Center. I just wanted to stay at home and do all the last-minute researching and stressing I could fit in. But the DMV only offers the English version of the test one Saturday a month, turning it into a “now or never” scenario.
The DMV looked much like it does in America, but much more efficient. I spent about $12 total for the eye test, written test and license and did not have to do too much waiting though it was packed. The woman who helped me in very limited English essentially became my agent for the day, ushering me in and out of rooms lightening quick. This is not unusual. Koreans at places like DMV’s, auto registration, restaurants(the places where you usually get treated like dirt), 9 times out of 10 will bend over backwards for a foreigner. It embarasses me to think of what it would be like for them in America. I can see the man or woman at the American DMV slowing their speech, talking louder and losing their patience, “DOOOOO– YOOOOOU—-UNDERRRRRSTAND!!!”
Well, I passed my eye exam, barely. When I read the first letter (or number?) the woman pointed to, she responded with a “Whay?” (The Korean version of “What the…”) Then as she stamped my forms she pulled out one word from her English vocabulary, “Glasses.”
On up to the written test that I needed a 70 to pass. There I took a 20 word test on a computer. Again I passed, barely. I was very relieved when my score, 70, flashed on the screen.
A theme was developing here I didn’t like. On the way home it continued. As a I made my way up the final hill to Gwangju my bike started sputtering. I was running out of gas! Luckily, I made it to the top of the hill, and since there are gas stations about every 100 yards in Korea, I was able to literally coast into a gas station. Where the Korean man laughed, filled my tank and sent me on my way with a “Good luck.”
On the way home, even though I barely passed both of my tests, I felt like a better, experienced and legal driver. I was certainly more cautious and nervous driving illegally. I am wondering now if it would benefit everyone if I took this piece of plastic back.
Editor’s note: The above license is not that of the author though his photo looks remarkably similar.