Near Yellow Mountain

Friday, May 31, 2013

That's the Ticket

Last night as my wife and I were driving home from seeing a touring production of “War Horse”, we turned off the highway onto a country road shortcut only to encounter a classic southern tradition – the “speed trap”. As I passed the two police cars I looked at my speedometer and felt I was within “normal tolerances”.  I thought I had dodged the proverbial speed trap bullet. Unfortunately as I turned the next corner, I saw blue and white lights come alive behind me. Twenty minutes later, citation in hand, I began to reflect on similar experiences in Japan, New Zealand, and China.
Japan has very nice police cars
My wife drove our car much more than I did in Japan since I commuted by train. Upon getting her first parking ticket, she decided to “do the Japanese thing” and give the police an apology letter hoping to get out of the $150 fine. She had the front desk staff at our apartment translate the letter. She drove to the police station, bowed and presented the bilingual letter to the officer on duty. Unfortunately the duty officer had been educated in the US and spoke perfect English – “this is very, very good “ he said with a smile “may I post it on our bulletin boardl” he continued. “Unfortunately” he concluded “you still have to pay the fine but we appreciate your effort”. Japanese police: 1 Team Gaijin: 0.

Many ex-pats in Japan either did not drive or stayed close to home when they did. My bride is made of sterner stuff and taught her Japanese friends the meaning of “road trip”. One day, she took three Japanese friends on a long excursion to visit a cultural spot. Two hours into the trip she was pulled over for speeding. Always a quick thinker, she turned to her friends and said “do not say anything - today you are all Americans of Japanese descent who can only speak English, I will do the talking". These normally law abiding citizens of the land of the rising sun followed their friend's lead. As the officer approached the door, my wife took the initiative – “good morning, I am sorry, we are Americans and nobody speaks Japanese, do you speak English?” The officer surveyed the car and was immediately suspicious – quickly asking questions to the other ladies in Japanese. Surprisingly all three ladies adapted quickly to the deception and with poker faces shook their heads “no”. Had they spoken, even in English, their accents would have given them away as native Japanese speakers. Sensing victory, my wife diverted attention from her guests and started speaking in a torrent of quick English, “is something wrong, could you please call a translator, I am sorry”. Nothing turns the tide in Japan like a good “I am sorry” followed up with a not too well pronounced “sumimasen” (a "catch all" apology in Japanese). Although the officer still seemed hard pressed to believe the three Japanese ladies in the car were “from California”, my wife pressed her advantage with another apology and the officer finally said (summoning his school boy English) “Ok, ok, prease (not a typo) slow down”.  Japanese police: 1 Team Gaijin 1. As my wife pulled back onto the highway, the car erupted in joy "sugoi (wow), Connie san, you are great negotiator, ha ha ha". The high point of that trip came before the destination......
This was not our last encounter with Japanese traffic police but we were content to end our days in Japan in a draw. Final score was 3 to 3.
The Kiwis have almost as many "speed cameras" as sheep
My first encounter with non US traffic police came during a vacation trip on the South Island of New Zealand on the day after Christmas. I was having a ball driving a powerful car on the two lane roads of the sparsely populated island nation. As we sped toward a glacier we wanted to hike on, I saw the unmistakable form of a police car pulled across the road with his “rack” on. I slowed down and then stopped a few yards in front of the car. A very tall uniformed officer was calmly waiting for me. Given he elected to pull his car across the road and stand outside his car, the Kiwi cop clearly wasn't worried about causing a traffic jam in this remote area. I had the passing thought that maybe he was just lonely.....

As we were coming to a stop, my wife and daughters began to strategize. Their conclusion was I should tell the officer we were in a hurry because it was a “special time” of the month and they were out of “pads” so we were hurrying to find a convenience store. I smiled at the hastily thrown together strategy but decided to play this situation straight. The line that  “we are searching for the nearest convenience store at the bottom of the southern hemisphere to secure feminine protection” seemed a little weak from my perspective as the only male in the car.  
“Hello, where are you from?” asked the surprisingly friendly cop. I meekly replied, “we live in Japan but are from America”, “that’s great, welcome and I hope you enjoy New Zealand - unfortunately I have to treat you like everybody else”. I was invited to sit in the police car while we worked out the details of my $300 fine for going “>2X the speed limit”. The Kiwi cop took my passport and input the number into his little computer console and then asked if I didn’t “see the sign” stating I was entering a town. “I saw the sign but never saw the town” I replied - not trying to demean the local populace (of two?) but trying hard to understand how a single house and a barn constituted a town. Anyway, while my family waited in our rental car and discussed my failure to play the “pad” card, I had a very nice chat with the cop who wound down our conversation by reminding me to stop at any “authorized” national bank to pay my fine before I left NZ or my passport would be “flagged” at the airport. His final words were “what happens in New Zealand, stays in New Zealand. As I left the car, I whispered to myself “well played, sir”. Who says Kiwis don’t have a sense of humor?

After Japan, we lived in Shanghai. Most US companies will not allow their expat employees to get a license or drive in China. Since I was the first American my employer sent to China, they didn’t think of all the details. Readers of this blog are already acquainted with our driver in China, Philip, but both my wife and I got Chinese driver’s licenses because we wanted the freedom to be able to drive ourselves from time to time. Although my wife and I both drove, we didn’t normally go very far without Philip behind the wheel.
Philip never believed that "silence is golden"
Philip needed to keep his driver’s license to keep his job. A natural charmer, I loved to watch Philip deal with police. We spent a lot of time on the road and were flagged down by police on several occasions. Each time Philip reacted the same way – he jumped out of the car and met the officer as far away from our car as possible. I learned to watch the face of the cop change from stern to neutral to friendly. Philip would just keep talking and point toward the car from time to time. He would look toward me and then turn and whisper to the officer. The abbreviated version of Philip’s line to the officer went something like this: “we are Chinese brothers who must work for a living”. “Unfortunately I have a very tough American boss who is always in a hurry trying to make money “. “Please help me, I need to keep a good driving record but my boss is so tough”. In every case, when we were together, Philip talked his way out of the ticket.

I didn’t mind being the prop that Philip used to keep a clean driving record. Normally we did a high five as we pulled away. If only it was that easy to get out of a ticket in the US.