Near Yellow Mountain

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Final Step

As weeks and then a few months went by since my return to the US, I kept putting off the last step of my move - getting a driver's license in North Carolina. You can comfortably live in Japan or China and never get behind the wheel of a car but in the US - not having a driver's license makes everyday life almost impossible.

No, I was not walking to the office.

No, Philip  (our driver in Shanghai) had not crossed the Pacific to make my life easier.

Nor was I driving without a license like so many people who come here from other countries and choose to drive sans legal permission - a risk a US citizen is not usually willing to take because of the consequences if you get caught speeding or in an accident.

I was keeping my Georgia license because it was one of the last tangible ties to my expat life. If I was still resident in Georgia, the flawed logic in the back of my mind told me, I was NOT really a resident of North Carolina. If I took the final step and got a NC driver's licence and registered to vote at the same time (part of the normal process here); I was completing the move that had started months ago. I would no longer be able to rebuff clerks at grocery and department stores with the ultimate excuse for why I didn't want a Macy's credit card or a "Books a Million" member card. Telling clerks: "I live in China" always ended those awkward conversations.

Not a happy place - another reason I didn't want to go through the licensing process
If asked for my home phone by a check-out person or marketer; instead of saying "I don't give out personal information", I would always say "enter the international code from your phone company and the 86 21......". I always delighted at the confused face before me and then said in my kindest voice - "oh, I live in Asia and my number won't fit in you computer anyway". I was proud to be an expat. Likely, I will still deliver some of my former excuses from time to time but I have to be more careful since when people see your face on a regular basis; the "I live in China" line becomes suspect.

Despite the fact I still travel much of the time (in March, I only spent 10 days in my new "home" state); I am beginning to establish patterns that mark me as a local. When I am in NC, my lunchtime penchant for walking across the street to "Subway" (for foreign readers, this is a sandwich shop - not public transportation) is one such pattern. After about a dozen times of explaining the atypical manner in which I like my "foot long veggie delite" made; last Friday I had the horrifying of experience of being smiled at and asked if I wanted "the regular". "Yes", I mumbled back with the full realization of the linkage between the use of the word "regular" and my new status as a local.

In the end, it was simple economics rather than a sudden epiphany regarding my foolish behavior that led me to the DMV office to get a North Carolina license. In North Carolina, there is a new law requiring you to have a local driver's license before you can register a car. My Georgia license had to be replaced before I could buy a car. Before leaving China, I had negotiated for the company provide me a rental car to drive while I made my transition to life in the US. My negotiated "free" time was running out and the thought of paying Avis or Hertz with my own money to drive a generic white Impala or Cruze was incentive enough to get my licence and go car shopping......

As I left my office to drive to the DMV center to present the required documents and take the test; I counted the number of times I had done this before 7 times in different states in the US and once each in Japan and China. Japan was actually a two day process and a difficult experience. China was fun. I had memorized the 100 question test (smuggled out of the test center by my loyal driver when he took my wife to take the test). The English version of the China driving rules test is written in "Chinglish" (aka Chinese English) - very hard for a native English speaker to divine the meaning of the triple negatives. In any case, my approach was to memorize the "A,B,C or D" answer by the first four words of each question. I had my secretary quiz me on the way to the testing center. She was never able to read my even half the question before I spit out the correct answer. She marveled - I asked if she had seen the movie "Rain Man" - she didn't get the reference.  I knew I was ready. The examiner heard the mouse on the computer I used for the test clicking very quickly. She was sure something was amiss. Cheating she suspected. As I blew through the test, which mercifully was exactly the same as the smuggled version I memorized, the examiner stood over my shoulder to see how I was doing it. She looked around my desk and saw nothing that was abnormal. On the 100th click of the mouse, my grade popped up - 100%.  I think that day a legend was born at the DMV in Shanghai.

Despite the above picture, getting my NC license was a breeze - the horror stories about long lines and 3 hour waits proved not be the case last Tuesday. In and out in 35 minutes, I became a newly minted North Carolinian.