Aliens Behind the Wheel

“I passed my driver’s test!” I cried and jumped like a 5-year-old seeing pandas for the first time in the zoo.

I got my temporary Pennsylvania driver’s license last weekend at Penn Hills Station, Pittsburgh, after four months’ constant practice behind the wheel. It was my belated rite of passage since I am ten years older than the state’s legal driving age of 16.

Accompanied by a soft spoken, blue-eyed young examiner, I was in and out of the parallel parking zone in two minutes. I had practiced the move only one hundred times. I then slowly drove along Rodi Road behind a crawling sweeper truck to make the loop from Stoneledge Drive to Darrell Drive. In fifteen minutes, the test was over.

“Congratulations! Not many people pass on their first try,” a middle-aged clerk at the counter where I posed for my new license photo.

I feel it’s surreal that I can operate a four-wheel machine in a city famous for its hilly roads. It’s not easy for Pittsburgh’s foreign drivers, more accustomed to flat land, to deal with the winding roads and the narrow, two-way streets, on both sides of which cars often park back to back.

As a matter of fact, I had never felt the urgency of learning to drive when I was in my hometown, Guangzhou, China, a metropolis of ten million people where public transportation is as convenient as flagging a New York Yellow cab. But until I got to America last summer, I realized that learning to drive is a survival skill not only for Americans but for aliens like me, who want to travel freely in the great Land of Opportunity.

In my first few months in Pittsburgh, I’ve learned that nothing in America is within walking distance. If I were told ten minutes to get to a place, it meant by car.

Learning to drive in Pittsburgh was unforgettable. I attended four lessons instructed by Ellie Miller, a veteran instructor from Easy Method Driving School.  She’s lately retired. In her 28 years of teaching, Ellie experienced dozens of life-threatening moments with her foreign students. She recalled a 24-year-old Indian student who made a left turn, driving into the oncoming traffic lane by instinct because in India, drivers keep left. Fortunately, there was no traffic coming.

Although I passed the driver’s test, I still feel intimidated to drive uphill like South Negley Avenue where I cannot foresee the traffic on the top of the hill. Surprises, such as a stop sign, might wait for me on the hill before I make a sharp turn.

“You’ll learn the principle of gravity quickly in Pittsburgh,” Ellie repeated to me about the importance of controlling brakes in Pittsburgh.

Maintaining a good speed is also a challenge. My Rwandan friend, Justa Igihozo, who is a new driver in Pittsburgh, says she would be speeding if she drove at 55 in her home country, because 60 kilometers (37 mph) is the speed limit in Rwanda.

I often find myself the only one who drives under or at the speed limit in Pittsburgh. This is apparently so when I drive to Penn Hills on I-376 at the speed limit of 55 mph, most vehicles pass me.

It’s too easy to get lost in Pittsburgh for most roads in the city are not straight. At times Y intersections join in the middle of a curvy road. My teacher Heather Lai, who recently moved to Pittsburgh from Taiwan, got her family an automotive GPS receiver. She named it “Lydia” because the gadget gives direction in a sexy female voice.

“Now my husband loves going out alone with Lydia in Pittsburgh rather than with me as his co-pilot,” she says.

Despite my frustration as a new foreign driver, I’m impressed by the courteous driving manners in Pittsburgh. My Indian friend, Harpreet Sarao also agrees.

“We don’t have polite hand gestures (for drivers) like here. If you did that, people think you are crazy,” Harpreet says. She also says she doesn’t hear many honks in Pittsburgh as honking is fairly common in India.

I feel differently about honks though. One time I almost had a fender bender after a driver in the next lane honked at me when I changed lanes. I instinctively tapped on the brake. Later, Ellie told me it was a friendly, brisk honnk-honnk instead of the angry honnnnnnnk.

How would I know the sound of honk has such knowledge? I’m sure my PA driver’s license will enrich my understanding of American driving.


Filed under: Prose, Songyi Zhang's America