Saturday, June 25, 2011

Welcome to Detroit! My Home for the Next 20 Hours (At Least)

I knew I had some karma to pay back for finally defeating that driver's license thing.

I suppose I should start at the beginning.

Now, Delta. Tsk, tsk. An incredible record of failure today, from the moment I fell into your capable hands at Narita. First, the check-in kiosk apparently wasn't showing the seating charts correctly. I chose what looked like an aisle seat, but turned out to be the middle of a row of three; the young woman next to me was pleasantly surprised to find that what looked like a middle seat was actually a window. Seems they had the seat letters off by one.

During the flight, the A/C malfunctioned, causing a fine, chilling dew to settle on every surface in the cabin, for which the flight crew seemed very put-upon to apologize. Partway through, when they dimmed the cabin for the in-flight movies (no in-seat video, of course), we all realized the reading lights weren't working. After another put-upon apology from the flight crew, I decided to pop a couple Dramamine and knock myself out. I certainly wasn't about to watch the movie.

Upon arrival, then, the police greeted the plane, apparently to question a woman who got angry at the flight crew when they couldn't re-seat her, though her seat was saturated with dew. (I was lucky--the damp never got worse than a thin film in my part of the plane.) Customs and immigration was fine, but the baggage claim was not. Our bags came out on two different carousels, one marked from Tokyo and one marked from Taipei. Granted, the flight originated in Taipei, but you'd think they'd list both departure points on both carousels?

Naturally, my bag showed up on the carousel from Taipei.

(A happy side note: in the customs line I ran into an old colleague from APIS--Nadine, the former elementary school principal. She's teaching in Singapore now and was heading back to Canada for the summer.)

When I got past customs, I checked the big board, only to find that my flight to Pittsburgh was delayed by 3 hours, which on a 20+ hour travel day really isn't all that bad. While I was en route to the gate, though, they cancelled the flight and automatically re-booked me for the next one--which was subsequently delayed, then cancelled. As of right now, I have a confirmed seat out of Detroit tomorrow morning and I'm on standby for the last flight to Pittsburgh tonight.

I could have had it worse, though: apparently, they've cancelled every flight from Detroit to Pittsburgh today, so some of the folks on my cancelled flights were actually booked to leave Detroit this morning. To add insult to injury, about a third of them were coming to town for the Pirates' game tonight. Needless to say, these were Red Sox fans--I'd think twice about driving downtown to see the Pirates, let alone boarding a plane. That makes me wonder that perhaps this wasn't my karma after all: maybe I was just caught up in the karmic aftermath of the Boston Bruins' Stanley Cup win. The fact that Boston fans are suffering does lighten the burden a bit.

While waiting for word on my second flight, I got to chatting with a stranded Delta pilot about the delays. Apparently, none of them have been related to weather. He seemed to think they were knock-on effects from earlier in the week, when storms kept enough planes a pilots from getting where they were needed. Why this should affect the Pittsburgh flight exclusively is beyond me--I don't see any other cancellations on the board.

The second cancellation was particularly farcical: they apparently re-routed a larger plane to handle the extra passengers, but failed to locate a first officer for the new plane. No one bothered to tell the gate agents, however, so we sat waiting while the delay grew longer and longer and the scant few seats left tonight disappeared. By the time we were officially cancelled, there were basically no seats out of Detroit going anywhere.

If I weren't so jet-lagged, I'd simply rent a car and drive home, but I don't trust myself on the road in my addled state. At least Delta is putting me up in a pretty nice hotel (Hilton Garden Inn, when everyone else got Best Western). Pro tip: always, always, always be polite and friendly with the airline agents, no matter how badly their employers have ruined your day.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Decaf coffee? In Asia?!? And, Back to the Burgh

Yes, I am currently drinking a glorious cup of decaf at the Tully's Coffee overlooking the north wing international departures hall at Narita. This is the first cup of decaf coffee I've found anywhere in Asia. (I love the taste of coffee, but can't handle the caffeine.)

Though I could probably use a slightly stiffer drink after that landing. It is windy in Tokyo today.

Anyway, let this serve as notice that Nana and I will be languishing in Pittsburgh and Ohio for the next several weeks, so aside from some posts from Nana on her conference in DC, you may not hear much from us for a bit.

And if you're anywhere within road-tripping distance of Pittsburgh or Columbus, let us know!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Chapter the Last: In Which Justin Finally Shows Fukuoka Prefercture Where It Can Put Its License--Namely, In His Wallet)

As of yesterday, I was ready to declare my epic battle with the Fukuoka Prefecture Driver's License Center a resounding Pyrrhic defeat. (You'll find a chronicle of the mighty struggle here, here, here, and here.) Sure, I walked away from the ordeal without a license, but at least in giving up I could claim victory over my pride. I was actually kind of pleased with myself for accepting that, as a great man said, one can't always get what one wants, and for walking away from the whole stupid thing before I let it become some kind of silly obsession.

Then I woke up today and dragged myself back there again. I tricked myself by saying I was just going down to Tenjin for lunch, and if I should happen to finish around noon, and then if I should happen to find myself on the 151 bus at 12:20, then I might as well take the test one more time, because it's not like I'd have anything better to do.

And it's a good thing I did. When I woke up this morning, getting behind the wheel of a car would have been a felony. As of 4:30 PM on this the 23 day of June, 2011, I became just like every other chump on the road, except my piece of plastic was all shiny and new.

In the end, victory was a bit of an anticlimax. (Isn't that always the case?) I suppose I was expecting an ovation, or some tickertape, or at least a bit of a smile.* All the examiner said at the end was "Okay," then he rushed me off to buy some stamps I'd forgotten. (In government offices in Japan, you don't simply pay for stuff--you buy stamps at one window, stick them on a piece of paper, then return them to another window. Sometimes, the same person actually goes from the first window to the second window in the interim. I have no idea why.) So I bought stamps, waited, handed someone a piece of paper, waited, had my picture taken, waited, signed a piece of paper, waited, then got my actual, physical license . . . and waited, because I was kind of on a roll, until the guy at the counter told me I could go. Then I got the heck out of there in case they decided to change their minds.

Oh, and how did I pass, you ask? By doing the exact same thing I did on Tuesday, but with a different examiner--plus an extra centimeter or two between my tires and the stop line.

In the end, though, I have to say I look on my victory as a mixed blessing. Success is less interesting than failure, and I'm afraid by succeeding I've ruined my narrative. There was something arresting in the story of a man who must learn to suffer nobly the shame of not being able to drive his wife to Costco. Almost Greek. Maybe it would have been better for my soul to have left this one enemy unconquered.

Aw, who am I kidding? I can drive in Japan now! Whoopee!

*I should note that the guy at the counter through this whole thing had obviously started to take pity on me. When I turned in my application (again), he whipped out a map of the course and circled the stop sign three times in dark red ink, as if I had somehow walked away from that whole thing where the examiner got out of the car and crawled on the ground without realizing that, yes, the freakin' stop sign was the problem. But he did shake my hand when he gave me my license, which was nice--it's not a common gesture in Japan, so it showed a nice little hint of cultural sensitivity on his part.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Final Score - Driver's License Test 3, Justin 0

(You can read my previous posts about failing the Japanese driver's exam here, here, and here.)

In writing about today, I'd like to begin by focusing on the positives.
  • I got to spend three hours outside on a beautiful day.
  • I didn't lose my temper.
  • They were running early today, so I got to fail a whole hour ahead of schedule.

The Story of How Justin Drove a Perfect Course and Still Didn't Get His License

Long story short: I'm pretty sure I drove a perfect course today, but I came home without a license.

I started strong. The examiner's mood was hard to read, but I was actually calm enough today to stumble through some polite Japanese conversation as we made our way to the car. Once inside, I even managed to ask a question about a part of the course I still didn't understand. In retrospect, perhaps that was my mistake. Maybe I didn't ask the question politely enough? Maybe he saw the fact that I'd even dare to ask a question as a challenge to his job, his nation, his masculinity? Who knows? All I know is that, as subsequent events would prove, I was probably doomed from the beginning again.

The first bit of the course was flawless. Accelerated smoothly to 35 kph, signaled, checked mirrors and blind spots, changed lanes, came to a nearly complete stop before the first entirely un-threatening turn, then crawled through the turn at about 5 kph without even thinking about touching the brake. Signal right, move right, check mirrors, look straight, check blind spot, turn right. So far, so good.

It was the at the end of the second straightaway where all heck broke loose. I signaled left, moved to the left side of the lane, and came to a full stop at the stop sign that got me on my first try. (Japanese stop signs look a lot like American yield signs.) I waited for three full seconds, as recommended, using the last second to start checking mirrors and blind spots.

Then, at precisely the instant my brain sent the message to my foot to get the heck off the brake already, the examiner yelled "STOP!", slammed on his brake, threw the parking brake on, and got out of the car.

He proceeded to get down on his hands and knees to see if my left tire was on the stop line. Apparently, it was. He got back in the car, shaking his head, then swooshed with his trusty red pencil before trying to explain to me that I was over the line.

I'll have to take his word for it: I could only see the right tire, which was definitely behind the line. If the left tire was over the line, it couldn't have been over by more than a few millimeters, and I'm not sure whether the car had time to lurch forward at all in the split second I was easing pressure on the brake.

At this point, I'm sorry to admit, I could feel myself beginning to shake. I asked the fateful question - "Fail desu ka?"

The examiner pursed his lips. "Fail desu."

As I saw it, I had three choices. I quickly decided not to complain: contradicting an authority figure is an instant fail in Japan at large, not just on the driver's test. I thought about steering the car right back to its parking spot, on the assumption that I was just darn well done with all that, and the extra practice wasn't going to do me any good. But then I remembered reading that sometimes, for mysterious reasons buried deep within the icy recesses of his heart, an examiner will take pity on a driver and overlook a minor error committed while driving an otherwise flawless course.

I also doubted my ability to explain to the examiner that, no, I wasn't stupid--I was heading back to the start line because there was no point in my finishing the course.

So in the end, after I (mostly) stopped shaking, I checked my mirrors, checked my blind spots, and turned left.

Then proceeded to knock the rest of the course out of the park. Seriously, that red pencil didn't move. Thus I suffered that bitterest of cruelties, false hope, as I rounded the last corner and slid the car effortlessly into its place.

The examiner grunted and muttered about the stop sign. "Driving school," he said. "Next time."

Didn't even get a "ganbatte."

Epilogue: In Which Justin Learns an Important Life Lesson (Sort Of)

A lot of growing up has to do with learning to fail graciously. I was never very good at that, which explains my short, disastrous career as a competitive athlete. Today, I can proudly say that, while I was seriously tempted to go nuclear on every man, woman, child, and farm animal within earshot, I didn't give any outward sign of the simmering rage bubbling in my spleen. Except for the shaking, of course, but I'm hoping that was misinterpreted as nerves.

Another part of growing up is learning to value yourself for your own reasons, not someone else's. I drove a perfect course today. I'm a good driver. I don't know what else I could have done. Obviously, I must have crossed some line, figuratively, before I maybe, barely, no, totally never crossed that line, literally.

And finally, part of living overseas is learning how to separate the universal crap from the crap you can actually blame on the locals. Finding someone who's happy to abuse the smallest shred of power? Sadly, that's universal. Going through a whole year in a foreign country in which the worst thing that happens is three rotten days at the driver's license center? That's Japan. I'm happy to say that the overall convenience, politeness, patience, service far outweighs this driver's license crap.

Still doesn't mean there's a word foul enough in English or any other language to express my loathing for the Fukuoka Prefecture Driver's Exam.

The Final, Final Score

Time Spent ~14 hours (over three days, not counting practice)
Money Spent: ~$200 US
Result: Four blog posts, one day of good exercise, and nothing else but pain.

Why I'm Trying For This Stupid License One More Time

Talking yourself into giving up on something stupid and frustrating is a skill utterly necessary if you want to live a healthy adult life. For a while, yesterday evening, it seemed I had finally reached a point in my life when I could shrug and walk away from a pointless challenge.

I had even started planning a blog post rationalizing my submission from several different East-Asian philosophical positions.

  • Buddhism. My suffering comes from my desire for a driver's license, and oddly enough, all that suffering hasn't made me want that stupid license more.
  • Taosim. You don't have a license now, and everything's fine. Best not to do anything.
  • Confucianism. You don't respect your superiors, so you probably don't deserve a license anyway.
  • Korean mom-ism. You can't get your license without sacrificing sleep, time, money, and happiness in service to a goal you don't particularly care about in the end.
  • Animism. The world is probably out to get you.
But this morning, when I woke up well-rested and marginally insane, I decided to give it one more try before calling it quits. My reasons?
  • Third time's the charm. My colleague did some extra research and learned that, apparently, the same thing that happened to us has happened to nearly every other American in Fukuoka. First try, they're polite, then they fail you. Second time, they're impolite, fail you, insult you a bit, and mess with your head. For (white) Americans, the third time seems to be the first time you actually stand a chance of passing. So I figure I should give myself one actual shot at this thing before I give up.
  • They remembered to return my application yesterday. This relieves me of the trip to JAF to get my license translated again, and makes a significant dent in the cost of another try.
  • I need the exercise. Weather's not too bad, either.
  • I have absolutely nothing else to do today.
I will promise this, though: I'm done after this. I have enough to fill my days on Wednesday and Thursday with all the preparations that need to be made before I leave the country for two months. After that, I'm not eligible for a license conversion anymore: I have to renew my US license this summer, and I won't have time to drive on it for three months in the US.

Part of me realizes this is absolutely crazy. One sure sign of insanity is doing the same thing again and expecting different results. Judging by the number of red ticks on my scoresheet, I haven't come close to passing, and actually did worse on my second attempt. But at least I'll get a good bike ride out of it, plus another story to tell.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Trials and Tribulations of a Wannabe Licensed Driver in Japan, Take Two

A kind reader complimented my last post on trying to get a license to drive in Japan, saying that she was impressed how I managed to make something that was certainly infuriating sound funny.

Well, that wasn't at all what I was going for, so today I'm going to write while the blood is still hot!


First, a brief explanation of the "practical" test. Officially, it begins right after your practice turn. Unofficially, it begins when your examiner first greets you after you've been waiting for 2-3 hours in a hot, humid room overlooking the course. If you can't muster up enough Japanese and/or enough courtesy under those conditions, that's already a strike against you.

Un-unofficially, it begins when they give you the course map to study, and you're somehow supposed to know that following those big, bold arrows will result in immediate and irrevocable failure within the first fifteen seconds of the course.

That's right: follow the map they tell you to memorize and you fail. That's because the map uses a dotted line to mark the median, while the first stretch of the course uses a dotted line to separate two lanes going in the same direction. Try to turn right from the left-hand lane, thinking the lane next to you is opposing traffic, and you fail right off the bat. Even though the arrows on the map clearly stay to the left of the dotted line the whole time.

Notice, also, that I said the first section of the course uses a dotted line to separate lanes and a solid line to mark oncoming traffic. The rest of the course alternates between using a dotted line for the median and using it to divide lanes again. Apparently, we're just supposed to memorize when the dotted line is the median, because the examiners sure as heck don't tell you. And again: if you follow the lines on the map you were told to study, then you fail, because the map always treats the dotted line as the median.

That was problem number one. Problem number two was even bigger: it seems that some examiners have completely different opinions as to the proper way to complete the course. For example, on Friday, for my first attempt, the examiner stressed how important it was to stay to the far left side of the lane, unless you were about to turn right. This is horribly counter-intuitive, as the safest place to be is the center of the lane, before moving right or left to turn.

Today, I was trying to stay left on the last straight stretch of the course, feeling really good about my chances of having passed (little did I know I had already failed minutes ago--more below), when the examiner opened his mouth for the first time during the test. He started repeating something about "hidari" ("left") which neither I nor my much-more-Japanesially-gifted coworker in the backseat could understand. I could only assume he was telling me to keep left. My instincts were telling me I didn't have much road thataways, but I figured he wouldn't be sitting in the left seat repeating the word "left" if he didn't think I needed to move left. So I inched left, and boom! Off the curb, instant fail.

We can only assume he was trying to tell me "not so far left." That would be the generous assumption.

Now, I'd be really peeved if that was the only thing that had kept me from passing, but it turns out we were doomed from the start. First, you could just tell--the guy had the look. You know that look: pinched mouth, beady eyes, perpetual scowl, an entirely unearned sense of superiority. If you don't know what I'm talking about, go walk into a government office and ask a question within fifteen minutes of closing (that's 4:00 PM, 3:00 PM Fridays).

Second, he believed the complete opposite of everything the previous examiner had told us. We were told to brake in the turn; this guy gave us marks off for breaking in the turn. We were told to slow at a green light; this guy busted us for slowing at a green light. We were told to go slower; this guy busted us for going too slow. We were told to turn into the right-hand lane after a right-hand turn; this guy busted us for not turning wide into the left. We were told to keep left; this guy busted us for not driving in the middle of the lane.

It's hard to stress how demoralizing this is. After Friday's (expected and well-deserved) failure, I took the examiner's words to heart, amended my course map, and on another expat organization's recommendation, wrote out a script of what actions I'd have to take to pass the course. Then I took my bike to a mostly empty parking lot and practiced. I ran the course over and over in my head. At the drivers' center today, I found an empty spot and walked an imaginary course over and over, rehearsing.

And now I learn that none of these requirements are set in stone (except for the obvious). Apparently, the instructor can make a little red swish with his pencil any time he darn well pleases--and as I'm beginning to learn, it only takes one swish to fail.

I hope you can understand how this leaves me dreading the thought of going back. A ninety-minute bike ride (I have no one to drive me tomorrow--see below), possibly in the rain, followed by another vicious raid on my wallet, all for the privilege of waiting two and a half hours in a hot, humid hole for some prissy martinet to decide he doesn't like the look of me.

Then there are the first harrowing seconds of the course: trying to suppress all the instincts a good driver builds up over the years, all the while listening for the swish of a red pencil, the sound of immediate failure--when failure means another four hours of your life wasted and another fifty bucks down the drain.

I'm glad I don't have to get a license. I can quit any time I want to. (Honest.)

But I'd bet even money I'll drag my masochistic behind out there again tomorrow.

*I should give an honorable mention to my coworker Thomas, who is suffering through an added layer of absurdity. Thomas has had a valid international driver's permit since last August; he's trying to convert to a Japanese license before the IDP expires. (I wasn't eligible for an IDP because I came here straight from Edinburgh. Long story.)

That means, not only has he been driving legally and safely in Japan for, oh, ten months now . . . he actually left the building where they told him he was unfit to drive in Japan and legally drove home. Tomorrow, he's heading off to visit family in Matsuyama. That's, like, four hours away. Which is absurd in and of itself, but it also means that he has to spend those eight hours round trip suppressing everything he's been taught by this driver's test, some of which will straight up get people killed on a real road.

**I should also mention that, unlike some of the teeming masses who have found just cause to rail against the Japanese driving licensure process, I don't actually blame the Japanese for it. I've yet to live in a country that doesn't have an equivalent, and most of the Japanese people I've talked to have agreed that they think it's insane. (For a native Japanese driver, the total cost for an initial driving license is in the thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars, plus about a hundred hours of instruction.)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Trials and Tribulations of a Wannabe Licensed Driver in Japan

You know, I like Japan. I really do. The people are polite and friendly, the food is great, the language is fascinating, the public transportation is excellent, and there's a very high cultural value placed on my profession. But sometimes, culture shock rears its ugly head, and I can't help but look at the Japanese way of doing a particular thing and say, "Well that's just silly."

Getting a driver's license in Japan is one of those things.

A List of Things That Have Little To Do With Driving Safely, But Can Still Hurt Your Chances of Getting A Japanese Driver's License:
  • Renewing your home-country passport or license too close to your arrival in Japan.
  • Not living in your home country for at least 84 days after the issue of your license.
  • Not renewing your international driver's license within 3 months before your arrival in Japan.
  • Being American. (Canadians don't have to go through this crap.)
  • Wearing shorts or open-toed shoes.
  • Having brown skin.
  • Driving in the middle of the lane, as opposed to driving in gutter.
  • Having a job that won't let you skip out of work for a week.
  • Failing to check over your left shoulder before turning, just in case a scooter has magically teleported into the four inches between your mirror and that ten-foot wall. (Remember, if you're doing it right, you're driving in the left gutter!)
  • Failing to check over your right shoulder before turning right, just in case someone's barreling down the wrong side of the road (?!).
  • Failing to check over your left shoulder before turning right (?!?!).
  • Not knowing enough Japanese to greet your examiner politely.
  • Failing to understand road markings that are intentionally designed to look nothing like the official markings on actual roads in Japan.
  • How busy the driver's center is (passes take longer to process than failures).
The process for getting a driver's license in Japan is, in short, a nonsensical and bureaucratic nightmare that, for most (white, male) Americans eats up about 12-20 hours over the course of 3-5 days, at a cost of about $75 per day. Seriously, it borders on mild psychological torture. In Fukuoka, it goes like this:

1. Get your license translated at the Japanese Auto Foundation. There's one office in Fukuoka, out in the suburbs. Fortunately, it happens to be in my suburb (Muromi). Unfortunately, my suburb is an hour away from the testing center, by public transportation. Even more unfortunately, if the examiners forget to return your official translation with the rest of your documents, you have to go back and pay the translation fee again.

2. Go to the testing center between 1:00 and 1:30 on a business day. No joke. Applications can't be processed outside these 30 minutes.

3. Wait. Usually 30-60 minutes.

4. Take a 10-question written test and a 10-second eye exam. Luckily, they're both in English!

5. Wait. Usually at least 60 minutes.

6. Take the "practical" exam. This is five minutes of pure hellish stupidity spent behind the wheel of a decommissioned taxi cab--an experience which deserves, and will receive, its own post later.

7. Fail the "practical" exam.

8. Lather, rinse, repeat. Almost always once at least, more commonly two or three times. We have a co-worker who went through this ordeal seven times before passing. And when I say repeat, I mean everything: the license translation (they failed to return it to me, which I didn't notice until I looked through my papers at home), the written test, the eye exam--everything. (Ed: Turns out this wasn't true--you only had to repeat the driver's exam and its associated costs.)

Anyway, I made my first attempt at running this gauntlet on Friday and failed miserably. I was so fixated on keeping left, checking over my shoulders, and glancing frantically at my (six!) mirrors, that I confused a stop sign for a yield sign (both inverted red triangles with kanji, incidentally, though one has more white), which resulted in a much-deserved instant fail.

I'm a little miffed that the examiner didn't let me finish the course, though. For $75 a pop, I think I was entitled to the practice! At least I got to ride in the back while my coworker failed his test, so I did see the course from the car once through.

I will say this, though: our examiner was very polite, did us the courtesy of using as much English as he could, and made absolutely sure we understood what we had done wrong at the end of the exam. He even offered us a hearty "ganbatte!" (roughly "Good luck!" or "Go get 'em!") before he tossed us out on our backsides.

Stay tuned for more on the driving course itself, plus my second attempt on Monday.