In February 2014, a high-speed car chase in Southern California made headlines across the Internet. A student from China was reported to be speeding and then fleeing half a dozen police cars for 40 minutes.
Some news outlets said the driver was afraid of the Highway Patrol and did not understand why the chase was happening. Commenters raged about how the reckless student had supposedly shamed all Chinese people overseas.
After reading the news, Mason Liang, a Chinese undergraduate at UW-Madison, sensed a business opportunity. He started giving private driving lessons to fellow Chinese students, teaching them regulations of American roads to avoid similar situations.
“I think there’s some misunderstanding between the people here and the Chinese international students,” Liang said. “Traffic laws in the U.S. and in China are very different, and there’s a lack of resources for Chinese students to get the necessary knowledge.”
Liang entered the market at the right time, because more and more Chinese students are studying in American colleges, and they need to obtain a U.S. driver’s license by taking a knowledge test and a road test. Even those with driving experiences in China have to take the tests, because their Chinese licenses expire after one year in the U.S., according to Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles.
To better prepare for the tests, some students go to professional driving schools. 4 Lakes Driving School is the most popular choice in Madison. President Judy Hudson said the company has trained many international students, especially Chinese.
“It’s not an easy task to get out there and teach people that don’t speak English very well, so we have to break a lot of language barriers,” Hudson said. “We take it slow with them. We do a lot of drawings on our boards in the car; we use our hands a lot; we use diagrams, pictures, tools…”
Liang, too, is trying to break that language barrier. He designed bilingual classes based on students’ skill levels. For the seasoned drivers from China, he provides two to four hours of instruction, sitting in the co-pilot seat and supervising their every move. For the new drivers, he gives them at least 10 hours of practice before taking the road test. He will show them how to operate the car from starting the engine to parking.
The biggest hurdle for Chinese students, Liang said, is to quickly adjust to a different traffic system. For instance, stop signs are rarely seen in China; the intersections are mostly traffic light-controlled. Also, many Chinese are unfamiliar with pullovers; instead of staying put, hands on the wheel, they get nervous seeing police car lights and make bad judgments. Therefore, Liang explains the rules bilingually and repeatedly to help students better make the transition.
Liang has taught more than 50 Chinese students at UW-Madison, and is currently teaching two. Potential students approach him through Wechat, a Chinese social network, and his main marketing comes from his past students’ word of mouth.
Liang also uses his background in computer science to give the business a technical edge. He developed a website-based learning system for test preparation. The $29 system includes mock knowledge tests and videos of him instructing how to navigate on the test route. For people to learn anywhere anytime, he even created a free mobile application in the Apple Store.
For a $45-per-hour private lesson, Liang pays the $20 car rent and put in time and energy. Since in-person lessons are limited by his time and location, Liang plans to focus on the website and partner with driving schools across the nation to expand his service reach.
“Next step we’re focusing on bringing customers to local driving schools in all cities in the U.S. We’re going to be the intermediate.” Liang explained. “I hope in the future, Chinese students can go to my website, choose their location, learn the basic knowledge and schedule local trainings.”