Thursday, October 1, 2009

Quick thoughts on refugees and driving.

[One in a series on teaching refugees to drive -To see the other posts on teaching refugees to drive, click on the driver education link at the end of this post.]

[Note. there's a fuzzy set of lines between stereotyping, generalizations about cultures and accurate assessment of intercultural differences. When working with refugees, however, you learn as you go and therefore as one needs to seek to accommodate cultural differences and overcome them before one really understands them it's often a feel your way along process of simultaneously working with and understanding a group of people from a different culture with a different background. I'm not completely comfortable with everything I have written here in terms of "cross-cultural sensitivity issues." On the other hand, this is the current state of my constantly changing thinking on the relevant issues as I struggle to achieve a goal of mine which is to see my driving students get their licenses and become safe drivers. With time, they will evolve.]

Over the past several years, I've taught various people to drive, either from beginning to finish or else just a few lessons to supplement someone else's driving.
This has been a learning experience for me and I am trying to assess and sort the results.

Here's the track record.

Two Chinese graduate students, one from beginning to end and she passed on the first try.


One Burmese Chin woman. Quit with valid excuse but obviously underestimated the time required to learn driving when she began. Thought one could learn to drive in just a few lessons.

One Nepali Burmese male. Learned reasonably well but had a great deal of difficulty grasping some basic concepts, such as choosing lanes. He also tended to put great pressure on himself, panic under pressure and feel great stress after making a mistake. This stress caused his mental functioning to go down and that meant, for instance, after making a mistake he would then confuse left and right. Finally he failed the road test twice, began canceling out on lessons at the last minutes using purposefully bad excuses and ultimately bought himself a van and began driving it without a license.

Nepali-Burmese female. Drove very badly, time management problems, asked for lessons like two weeks before the road test. Failed. Then I dropped her as a student after she began driving without a license and showed a bad attitude towards it after hitting a car in a parking lot. (Same person who asked "Can I drive myself to the road test?") The traffic violation case resulting from this was dropped due to a technicality (cop put the court date down for a holiday) and she passed on her second try.

Second Nepali-Burmese male. Had been driving in Thailand for years and bought himself a car and began driving it to work and elsewhere without a license. Asked for help with his parallel parking only. I decided that the best thing to do was to help him in the hopes that he would get a license and the situation become legal. He learned parallel parking easily but failed his road test twice. Last I heard was still driving without a license. (He also mistreats his girlfriend badly. I think people might be beginning to get a picture of why I don't deal with the eight local Nepali-Burmese I know anymore. On the other hand, one thing I'll give the Nepali-Burmese credit for is that the bulk of them don't hesitate to ask others for assistance, sometimes whether they need it or not.)

African male refugee. Wanted parallel parking lessons. Said he had been driving for years in Africa but no one in Africa ever parallel parks. I gave him the lessons. He failed his first road test, reportedly for being over-cautious at an intersection where he had the the right of way (probably makes sense in Africa to drive that way) but passed on the second try.

Nepali-Burmese female. Taught one day only. Quit because her life was in chaos and her boyfriend was mistreating her badly. (Lovely people, the Nepali-Burmese.)

Karen male. Taught for months. Frequent problems with basic concepts, failed his road test badly on first try.


Refugees are a funny bunch of people. Let's look at some of the things that often mark them as different from mainstream Americans.

1. History of trauma. This effects anxiety levels and thinking and decision making.

2. Low education in many cases. This effects the ability to learn as ability to learn is a learned skill. Also affects the ability to set, assess, plan and achieve goals involved with acquiring a new skill or set of skills. Tendency to gloss over underlying weaknesses in driving in order to get to the new stuff.

3. Often speak poor English. Affects communication. At least two of my refugee driving students have confused verbal instructions to go left and right while driving. This often affects their initial knowledge of the rules of the road and expectations of a driver in the USA. (Most Burmese speakers do not read the DMV road book. Instead they just download lists of questions and answers in Burmese with English translations of the answer and focus on getting enough questions to pass the test and get the learner's permit. This has serious ramifications. Another admitted she sat through the five hour class but did not understand any of it as her English was quite poor.)

4. Poverty and low exposure to technology. These people did not grow up sitting in their mommy and daddy's car while mom shuttled them around to soccer practice. They did not spend their childhood looking out the window's of the family car trying to read the signs and asking occasional questions about driving.

5. Often come from non-legalistic, often pre-industrial, often even indigenous cultures. This has a thousand little ramifications in mental behaviors including attitudes towards road rules, expectations and even lane changing. In some cases, the cultural background also affects the ability to plan for and achieve long-term goals. Right-of-way laws are often a completely foreign concept to people from a non-legalistic culture. (Don't believe me? Check out the traffic in Taiwan some day.)


Teaching refugees to drive is not an easy thing to do and one who does it should expect to put in a great deal of time on each refugee one teaches. One needs to make expectations clear up front, including the possibility that they might drive without a license and that you will take this quite seriously. (As noted three of the folks I taught. all Nepali-Burmese, do this or did this. I spoke to some folks at the Rensselaer Open Bible Church and although we are theologically miles apart, they know refugees and how they think and act and agree completely that it is extremely important that if one assist refugees with car related issues one either ensure that they have a driver's license already or else tell them of the consequences, including consequences with your relationship with them, if they drive without a license.)

My experience with Burmese refugees is that they are tough, hard working people but that they somehow aren't good at setting goals and following through to achieve them. A plan that involves incremental steps over a long period of time and frequent set backs (failed road tests) along the way does not come easily to them.

Driving is not a single skill. It is instead a set of different skills many of which we as Americans take for granted. (i.e. knowing road signs or knowing when to choose lanes.) Therefore driving should be taught to refugees as a set of skills with frequent assessments and it made clear that if they do not have a certain skill one will not move ahead in the lessons until one guarantees they know that skill. Assess constantly and use those assessments to stop and reteach missing skills. You do not want to find out that your student does not understand a "Left turn only" sign at a red light after he drives into the intersection assuming it means he can ignore the light if he wishes to go left (true story.)

Assess constantly, set low incremental expectations, do not assume they have the background knowledge an American would,

No comments:

Post a Comment