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Sian Cullen and her daughter Aine. Cullen was a teenager in Dublin, Ireland when Aine was born. They now live in Seattle.The Seattle Story Project: First-person reflections published at These are essays, stories told on stage, photos and zines.To submit a story – or note one you've seen that deserves more notice – contact Isolde Raftery at or 206.616.2035.

Lessons Learned In Kenyan Driving School (No 1: 'You Look Chinese')

Courtesy Tony Trinh
To get a driver's license in Kenya, Tony Trinh, an infectious diseases doctor in Seattle, had to go through a baffling driver's ed program.

Dr. Tony Trinh was doing research in Kenya as an infectious diseases fellow from the University of Washington when he applied for a driver’s license. First though, he had to take a driver's education course. He chronicled that experience on his Facebook page, republished here.

Aug. 17, 2013: Signing Up

Receptionist: So, where are you from? China?
Me: No, I'm actually American.
Receptionist: Well, you look Chinese.
Me: My parents are from Vietnam, but I was born in America.
Receptionist: Oh ... Vietnam.
Me: Yes.
Receptionist: So do you speak Chinese?
Me: (Eye roll) Yes, yes I do.

Aug. 19, 2013: Speed Limit In China

Me: Oh, where's the other instructor?
Driving Instructor #2: He couldn't make it. You're with me today.
Me: Great! Let's get started.
Driving Instructor #2: So, first you must know the speed limit. What's the speed limit in China?
Me: (Silence)

Aug. 23, 2013: Celebrate?

Each driving lesson starts with a major pimping session. Here’s today's:

[asset-images[{"caption": "In driver's ed, Tony Trinh learned the rules of the road on a toy board. \"We had to literally play with toy/matchbox style cars, to learn how to drive and around round-abouts and shift lanes,\" he said.", "fid": "102715", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201412/tony-trinh-toy-cars_0.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy Tony Trinh"}]]Instructor: Tony, what should you do when you get your license?
Me: Celebrate?
Instructor: No, Tony.
Student#1: Drive the way you taught us in class?
Instructor: No

:::confused silence:::

Instructor: Sign your license! What do you sign it with?
Student #1: A pen?
Instructor: Yes, what color? Tony?
Me: A black pen!
Instructor: No, Tony. Blue!
Me: (.....)

Aug. 25, 2013: Meeting Other Students

Instructor: Tony, meet my other student.
Student#2: Hi, My name is Agnes.
Me: Hi Agnes. Pleasure to meet you. My name's Tony.
Student#2: Tony, Toh-NEE. Ha! That's so easy to pronounce! You guys usually have really hard names to pronounce.
Me: (Long look out the window)

[asset-images[{"caption": "Tony Trinh poses with fellow driver's ed students at the testing site in Kenya.", "fid": "102718", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201412/tony-trinh-friends.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy Tony Trinh"}]]Aug. 30, 2013: The Big Day

I get a call around 10 a.m.

“Something has happened to the police station, can you come take your test today?”

Curious, and unprepared, I quickly shuffle around my schedule and patients.

“Sure, why not?”

New Leukemia and recurrent tuberculosis will have to wait.

I show up to the school at 2 p.m. The driving school is responsible for the examinees’ transportation. They give me a bunch of papers and tell me to load onto the back of a huge pick-up truck.

I pile in with the rest of the equally baffled students, migrant farm worker style: Four Kenyans, one Frenchman, me, and you’ll never guess … seven (actual) Chinese people!

After a 30-minute bumpy ride, we reach what I am told is a police station. There are already 30 local Kenyans sitting outside, disheartened. We’re told they’ve been waiting for hours.

But since we’re foreigners, we get the special treatment. This includes special instructions by a jovial officer – imagine Idi Amin, but sillier. We gather around him.

“Go buy an envelope.” He points to a woman standing behind what looks like a candy stand. We all come back dutifully, envelope in hand.

“Now put your papers in the envelope, like this.” Piece by piece, he shows us how to place paper in an envelope. Surprisingly, the Chinese have a big problem with this.

And 15 more minutes of my life go by.

We then wait. The students ahead of us enter a door, but strangely I never see anybody leave. Even stranger, I never hear the sound of a car start, or see any students drive away in a vehicle. But who cares, we’re getting closer, graduating from dirt patch to bench.

At around 5 p.m., a woman comes and greets us. “Now, take your papers out of your envelopes. Like this.” She shows us how piece by piece to take our papers out of our envelopes, just as diligently as the officer, but in reverse.

Then things pick up. Another officer gestures me to come, shouting something incomprehensible to me. I then realize he’s trying to impress me with his Chinese. I let him, as I follow him into the office.

He sits down, and looks over my papers. “Oh, you’re from the United States?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say.

“You must speak pretty good English”

“Yes, I speak English, pretty well.”

More paper shuffling. I stare off into space, admiring the map of Kenya on the wall.

“OK, sign here.”

He hands me a nice blue ballpoint pen. I sign away.

No toy cars, no traffic signs, no driving. He didn’t even ask me if I knew what a car was!

He points me out the back door. I load up with the rest of my countrymen, and we ride home as licensed drivers.

Tony Trinh has since returned to Seattle, where he is in clinical practice as an infectious diseases doctor with the Polyclinic. He is one-eighth Chinese.

The Seattle Story Project: First-person reflections published at throughout December. These are essays, stories told on stage, photos and zines. To submit a story - or note one you've seen that deserves more notice - contact Isolde Raftery at or 206-616-2035.