Down on farm, driver's licenses grow like weeds

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Down on farm, driver's licenses grow like weeds

Anyone who reaches the age of 18 usually wants two things very badly: an apartment and a car. An apartment can often be difficult to obtain, but who can pass up a set of wheels?

A car is more than a convenient way to travel. It is the symbol of youth, wealth, independence, freedom and coolness.

For most of us guys, cars are a great way to meet girls, or so they say.

That's why most young people cannot resist a quick way to earn a driver's license, even if they have to travel a long way to get that license.

Each day at Cheonho-dong, on the eastern side of Seoul, 15 or so people gather in front of a tour bus before 7 a.m.

On the weekends, especially on Saturdays, the number doubles, for those who have jobs have cleared that day so they can get their licenses as soon as possible.

The tour bus travels almost two hours south to Jeungpyeong-eup, in North Chungcheong province, to a remote area surrounded mostly by farms. It is impossible to get a taxi in this place because few cars pass by this rural driving school. This is the home of tractors.

The idea of the school, whose name shall go unmentioned, was that once the students were taken to such a secluded area, the options for them would be limited. As a result, they would be reluctant to change their minds and head back to Seoul, especially since the bus traveling to the capital from the driving school leaves at 6 p.m.

So, once in Jeungpyeon-eup, there's nothing to do except take driving lessons. Thus, many students who don't know where the bus is taking them, complain. In response, the instructors at the school regularly promise to drive those who wish to return to Seoul to a nearby bus station.

The question: Don't students know beforehand how far away the driving school will be? Apparently the majority do not.

"I thought it would be in some part of Gyeonggi province," said Hwang Joon-gu, 28.

The address on the driving school's Web site is Gangnam, southern Seoul. However, that address is an office that promotes the driving school.

The Internet is a convenient way to gather information, but in this case the Web site is vague. Most of the students just seem to be the victim of the Internet or they don't think twice. Why? Because the Web site promises a license in six days or less.

But even after traveling to a remote area applicants seem not to mind that they were somehow suckered in to it because there is no faster way to get a driver's license in Korea. In Seoul, a license generally takes a couple of months and students only get a few minutes for practice. Plus, those who wish to take the exam in Seoul have to sacrifice a whole day.

"I have checked up driving schools, but there is none in Gyeonggi province and the closet place would be Incheon," Mr. Hwang says. "Still, a lot of people are on the waiting list in Incheon."

According to Mr. Hwang, there are three ways to get a license. One is to take a driving test in Incheon or in a rural area. The other is to pay 20,000 won ($15) for a simulation drive, which is a practice drive, or take classes in Seoul.

Mr. Hwang does not recommend either of those ways.

"A few years back I tried a school in Seoul but it took forever for me to get a test," Mr. Hwang says. Most candidates say taking a simulation drive is like sitting in a car in an amusement arcade: the only thing on the car that moves is the steering wheel.

"Once a popular entertainer took her driving lessons out here," says Kim Dong-won, a 22 year-old part-time instructor at the school. "It was a major piece of gossip in the neighborhood. She seemed really eager to get her license as soon as possible."

Actually, the instructors at this isolated school suggest that students take at least six days of practice. But not everyone has the motivation to catch the bus each morning at 7 to Chungcheong province.

Most people get their licenses at Jeungpyeong-eup within less than a week, according to the president of the driving school. Some do it in a couple of days.

It took Mr. Hwang a week to get through the second part of the exam, which is basic driving and parking. The first part is a written test and the third part is driving through a set course. Mr. Hwang only practiced for two days for the basic driving test.

"Down here, I get to drive all day, which is pretty helpful," he says.

On this Saturday, however, Mr. Hwang failed the test. His mistake: He drove too slowly on the highway.

"I have to come back on Tuesday to this remote place," Mr. Hwang says. "I hope I get through it the next time so I don't have to travel all the way down here again."

Kim Song-moon is a 31-year-old butcher. He started his lessons on the same day as Mr. Hwang, but unfortunately he failed to pass the written test -- five times. Mr. Kim offered reasons for each time he failed. Even so, he hopes to get his license before the end of the month, and if he's lucky, perhaps the end of this week.

"This time I had trouble with the pen," Mr. Kim says. Another student who failed the written test three times and the basic driving test five times, says, "I kept using the wrong strategy."

Most of the students in Jeungpyeong-eup especially enjoy driving around with an instructor. It's a sightseeing tour, boring for the male students, but exciting for the females.

Some of the young women in the classes have their photographs taken with their instructors. For students like Mr. Hwang, one farm looks just like the next.

by Lee Ho-jeong

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