Driver's ed

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Driver's ed

The first question on the Korean Taxi Drivers' License Examination is:

Choose the gu (district) where the U.S. Embassy is located.

a) Junggu

b) Jongno

c) Yongsan

d) Seodaemun

A Westerner sits hunched over a desk carefully studying the question. Finally, he proceeds to mark his answer.

The test-taker this recent day is Michael Rogol, 30, a former management consultant from the United States. In a room filled with scruffy middle-aged men, youngsters and a few stern-faced women, Mr. Rogol is among 131 Koreans who are taking the exam at the Transportation Center in Seoul.

For reasons only he can explain, Michael Rogol wants to drive a taxi cab. In Seoul.

As Mr. Rogol works on his test sheet, some examinees in the room stare at him in bewilderment while others smile in amusement.

A brawny man who has just finished his test says aloud, "He wants to become a taxi driver in Korea, eh?" and shakes his head.

The supervisor of the test, Kim Jae-myeong, sees nothing unusual in the pursuit. He says, "These days, there are women, disabled people and even North Korean defectors who take the taxi driver's exam. I see nothing wrong with foreigners taking the test."

If Mr. Rogol does pass this exam, he will be the first foreigner in Korea to hold a taxi license here.

When Mr. Rogol finishes his exam and leaves the test room, he says in Korean, "It was really difficult," then switches to English, "Ugh, I didn't know where Brazilian Embassy was, and this time around, they didn't let me use a Korean-English dictionary."

Outside the room, an administrator from a taxi company approaches Mr. Rogol and says, "Hey, if you pass, please come work for us." Mr. Rogol thanks the man and walks on. Later, he meets with Yang Beom-seop, the director of the Taxi Transportation Association, for a brief chat. Mr. Rogol discusses the petition he has made to the head of Seoul's Taxi Transportation Association, which will allow Mr. Rogol to use an electronic dictionary in future tests because his Korean is limited.

"We will try to accommodate you," says Mr. Yang, "but you must understand that you have to be given an equal opportunity with other test takers. It would be unfair to give you special favors. And who knows, you might pass this time."

Just before leaving the test center, the results come in. Mr. Rogol achieved a score of 35 -- he needed a 60 on the written exam for a taxi driver's license. Surprisingly, he is not disappointed, perhaps because he has already jumped the first hurdle by passing the road test this past spring. "I knew I wouldn't pass this time and I'm perfectly happy with my score. Passing is a long term goal for me."

Acop in Northern Ireland, maybe, but a hack in the hub of Northeast Asia? Dealing with drunks, getting lost, sitting in gridlock. Why on earth?

"I want to learn about Korea," Mr. Rogol says as he leaves the testing center to meet up with friends in downtown Seoul.

"Taxi drivers are the most connected group of people I know in Korea," he says. "Whether it's political, economic, social or even the weather, they have opinions about everything. As a consultant, I had all these interactions with Korean executives, yet I felt I was missing a big part of Korean society. I wanted to get exposure to a broad section of the work force here and to learn about the daily lives of different people."

But he doesn't want to become a full-time taxi driver. Mr. Rogol does not believe that becoming a professional taxi driver is the be-all and the end-all. O.K., understandable. "I'm a process-oriented person," he says. "Koreans tend to believe that achieving an end-state result is important, but I put emphasis on the learning process. I just want to gain my taxi license so I can drive a cab around to meet and talk to people. For me, it's not about earning a living through taxi-driving."

In fact, driving a cab is his hobby. Even so, why carry a hobby to this extreme? "It's fun and I learn a great deal from passengers, and I get to share my views with my friends, both Korean and foreign."

But Mr. Yang of the Seoul Taxi Association isn't sure. "Does he really need to be a cab driver to better understand Koreans? I can't understand his real motives."

Michael Rogol has lived in Korea for a little less than three years. He first came to the peninsula in 1996 as a recipient of the Henry Luce East Asian Scholarship to work for Korea International Cooperation Agency, under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He quickly became enamored of the land. He stayed for a year, then returned to the United States for graduate school. He returned to Korea to live permanently last year, being hired as a permanent staffer for a global consulting firm.

In late 2001, Mr. Rogol decided to become a taxi driver in Seoul because he wanted to get in touch with the people. As a first step, he practiced for the Korean Professional Driving test, a practical road test. He had to petition the Ministry of Construction and Transportation to partake in the process because he is an alien residing in Korea on a work visa, which was duly granted to him. On his eighth attempt, he passed and gained his Professional Driving License in the spring of this year. Then he began studying for the written exam for the Seoul taxi drivers license. He has now taken that test three times.

Word got out in his consulting firm that he was studying to become a taxi driver and he was aggressively approached by the media. He was a regular on an entertainment program called, "Michael Rogol's I Love Korea," on KBS-TV, which aired this August. He says, "I did the interviews and TV spots to share my experiences with other people. But because they pushed for too much entertainment, like going to noraebang [karaoke rooms], I left the program after five shows. They wanted an actor."

Mr. Rogol left his job at the consulting firm in August to study for his written exam full-time. He says he has been studying at least four hours a day with a private tutor, whom he calls "Cho Seonsaeng-nim."

For the moment, Mr. Rogol is unemployed, but he has enough saved up to get by. He reckons that perhaps early next year, he will find a full-time job in Korea. "I can't imagine not coming back to Korea. I will always want to come here at a certain time in my life," he says.

In the meantime, Mr. Rogol is a frequent subject of interviews with the media. For these sessions, Mr. Rogol "borrows" a taxi cab (by law he must be followed by a cab driver from a cab company) and takes passengers to various destinations without charging a fare. Television crews typically follow him or sit next to him in the front seat while interviewing his passengers.

"Don't get me wrong, I am not doing this to generate publicity," says Mr. Rogol.

His college friend, Richard Marks, whom he meets for lunch, says, "Mike's always done unusal things, experimenting with new ideas. He's a go-getter."

Mr. Rogol says his family also supports his choice. "Go have fun," the parents say.

At first, passengers were baffled by a foreigner who spoke a little Korean and would drive them to all parts of Seoul. When they warmed up, they would invariably ask a question from this list:

1) Where are you from?

2) How old are you?

3) What ARE you doing?

4) Are you married?

5) Why aren't you married?

Mr. Rogol comes from a background far distant from someone who watches a meter for a living. He graduated from Georgetown University magna cum laude, then received a masters degree in business administration from Massachussets Institute of Technology. Before coming to Seoul, he was an energy consultant in a Boston-based firm and worked for Dell Computer. He also served on an advisory committee for George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign.

"What I noticed is, taxi drivers have a lot of han and jeong, sentiments only Koreans can understand," says Mr. Rogol as he drives. "There's this time when an elderly man from Pyeongyang was in my cab talking about how much he missed his family in the North; I mean, I can sometimes feel the those sentiments." He says, "If it weren't for them, none of this would have mattered."

One more lesson: "In New York," he says, "you find taxi drivers who are Pakistani. And in Paris, there are Moroccans. Getting into a taxi with a foreigner may be one natural extension of Korea's globalization."

by Choi Jie-ho

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