The Wheels of Fortune by Peter Hessler

This story perfectly captures the charm of a village and its people, a cultural trait illuminated by the routines of the wider world, and the author’s hilarious ex-pat take on it all. I discovered it via Longform’s compilation of 25 Favorite Unlocked New Yorker Articles, which quickened my pulse at first glimpse. Please take a moment to savor …

The Wheels of Fortune
The People’s Republic Learns to Drive
By Peter Hessler

The first accident wasn’t my fault. I had rented a Volkswagen Jetta and driven to my weekend home in Sancha, a village north of Beijing. I parked at the end of the road, where the pavement widens into an empty lot. It’s impossible to drive within Sancha; like virtually all Chinese villages, it was built before anybody had cars, and homes are linked by narrow footpaths.

About an hour after I arrived, my neighbor asked me to move the car, because the villagers were about to mix cement in the lot. That day, Leslie, my wife, and I were both on our computers, trying to do some writing.

“I can move it if you want,” my neighbor said. His name is Wei Ziqi, and he had recently completed a driving course and received his license. It was his proudest achievement—he was one of the first in the village to learn to drive. I handed him the keys and sat back down at my computer. Half an hour later, he returned and stood in the doorway silently. I asked if everything was all right.

“There’s a problem with the car,” he said slowly. He was smiling, but it was a tight Chinese grin of embarrassment, the kind of expression that makes your pulse quicken.

“What kind of problem?” I said.

“I think you should come see it.”

In the lot, a couple of villagers were staring at the car; they were grinning, too. The front bumper had been knocked completely off. It lay on the road, leaving the Jetta’s grille gaping, like a child who’s lost three teeth and can’t stop smiling. Why did everybody look so goddam happy?

“I forgot about the front end,” Wei Ziqi said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I’m not used to driving something with a front end,” he said. “During my course, we only drove Liberation trucks. They were flat in front.”

I had parked the Jetta parallel to a wall, and he had backed up and turned the wheel sharply, not realizing that the front end would swing in the opposite direction. I knelt down and inspected the bumper—it was hopelessly bent.

He got some wire and tied the bumper to the front end. He offered repeatedly to pay for it, but I told him not to worry; I’d deal with the rental company. The next day, I set off to return the car.

Driving is something that I take very seriously. When I turned sixteen, I was told that handling an automobile is a privilege and a responsibility, and I still get nervous thinking about the day that my mother drove me to the Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church, in Columbia, Missouri, to take my first driving exam. The state’s Division of Motor Vehicles rented office space in the building, and the exam began and ended in the church parking lot. In mid-Missouri, it was widely known that when it came to judging sixteen-year-old males the D.M.V. was even tougher than the Methodists. They failed boys for not checking the blind spot, for running yellow lights, for tiny adjustments on parallel parking. There were rumors that any boy who was visibly confident would flunk—if you believed that you were predestined for a license, then the folks at the Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church would prove otherwise. I took the test in my family’s Dodge Caravan, and afterward the examiner gave me a stern speech. It began with the statement “You’re lucky we don’t professionally evaluate you,” and ended with “I hope I don’t see you in the hospital someday.” Between these remarks, the man acknowledged that I had passed by the barest of margins, and that was all that mattered. There was no purgatory at the D.M.V. You either failed or you passed, and success meant that, as long as you avoided trouble and kept up the paperwork, you’d never have to take another driving exam in the state of Missouri.

After moving to Beijing, I was surprised that my Missouri license had some currency in the People’s Republic. The country was in the early stages of an auto boom; Beijing alone now registers almost a thousand new drivers every day. All Chinese applicants are required to have a medical checkup, take a written exam, complete a technical course, and then pass two driving tests. But the process has been pared down for any foreigner who already has certification from his home country. These days, a driver from overseas takes only a written exam, but in 2001, when I applied, I had to pass a special foreigner’s road test. The examiner was in his mid-forties, and he wore white cotton driving gloves with tobacco stains on the fingers. He lit up a Red Pagoda Mountain cigarette as soon as I got in the car. It was a Volkswagen Santana, the nation’s most popular passenger vehicle at the time.

“Start the car,” the man said, and I turned the key. “Drive forward,” he said.

We were north of the city, in a neighborhood that had been cleared of all traffic—no cars, no bikes, no pedestrians. It was the most peaceful street I’d ever seen in the capital, and I wish I could have savored it. But after fifty yards the examiner spoke again. “Pull over,” he said. “Turn off the car.”

The Santana fell silent; the man filled out forms, his pen moving efficiently. He had barely burned through the tip of his Red Pagoda Mountain. “Is that all?” I said.

“That’s it,” the man said. He asked me where I had learned Chinese, and we chatted for a while. One of the last things he said to me was “You’re a very good driver.”

That summer, I began renting cars from a company in southeastern Beijing. The car-rental industry was a new one; five years earlier, almost nobody in the capital would have thought of renting an automobile for a weekend trip. But now my local company had a fleet of about fifty vehicles, mostly Chinese-made Jettas and Santanas. Usually, I rented a Jetta, which cost twenty-five dollars per day and involved an enormous amount of paperwork. The most elaborate part of the process was a survey of the car’s exterior, led by an employee, who recorded dents and scratches on a diagram. This inspection often took a while—the Jetta is a small automobile, but Beijing traffic made the most of the limited canvas. After documenting the damage, the employee turned the key in the ignition and showed me the gas gauge. Sometimes it was half full; sometimes there was a quarter tank. Sometimes he studied it and announced, “Three-eighths.” It was my responsibility to return the car with exactly the same amount of fuel. One day, I decided to make a contribution to the fledgling industry … continued

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