Driving certificate

Hao Li’s secret to helping hundreds of immigrants pass their driving test? Sin.


“If you don’t pass your driving test, I won’t be in the mood to fish!”

This is how San Francisco driving instructor Hao “Jack” Li signed off on a message he sent to Chinese social media platform Xiaohongshu to attract new students for his Jin Pai driving school ( “Gold medal”). The visual: A photo of him standing by his car, emblazoned with the words “student driver,” and holding a two-foot rockfish.

The fish bears witness to how Li managed to teach over 1,000 immigrant students to drive. When he started six years ago, his students’ mistakes pissed him off: Stop signs, rare in China, meant his students ignored them or stopped too abruptly. Other times, Chinese drivers, trained to watch out for cyclists, slowed down at intersections and ended up blocking traffic.

“I found myself yelling at them,” Li said, though he considers himself a generally calm and subdued person. Yelling, however, only made the students more nervous, so Li had to change his approach. Fishing, he found, calmed him down. Today, he says, he fishes regularly and never gets angry. Instead, his mantra for students became “Good job. Good job.” That’s what I hear as one of his students.

Patience is not his only tool. Li also uses props: three two-inch-long 3D car models from the Pixar movie “Cars,” in red, blue, and brown, to demonstrate reversing, turning, blind spots, and the three-second rule to keep a safe distance. .

To date, Li, 42, and the instructors working for him have trained some 3,000 drivers in the Bay Area, enough that if they all sat behind the wheel, they’d fill the Oracle Park parking lot.

Photo courtesy of Hao Li. Taken November 2021.

Li says it takes 10 hours, at a cost of $1,000, for a beginner to pass the driving test. Every month, nearly 30 of his students, 80 percent of whom are ethnic Chinese, pass the test, he said. Almost all of them drove in China before moving to the US, so he finds most of his job is to fix habits from there. Frequent honking is one of those habits.

“It’s very enjoyable to teach different people to drive,” Li said. “And I’m satisfied when my experience can help them save time in learning.”

His students included a cross section of the Asian community in the Bay Area: one with ADHD whose mind was prone to wander; a journalist who failed the test eight times and passed it on the ninth attempt with Li’s help; and many technicians who work in Silicon Valley.

“They would recommend me and my school in their internal company forums,” Li said. “Try to name any tech company in the Bay Area, and you’ll find I’ve taught them all.”

Every day, starting at 8 a.m., Li could have students teaching as far north as Petaluma or as far south as Santa Cruz. Occasionally, he stops for a meal at AL’s Place on Valencia Street, or at the Foreign Cinema on 21st and Mission Streets. But he tries to avoid bringing novice drivers to the Mission; the roads are complicated by too many delivery people.

As we drive through the streets of San Francisco, he questions me or spouts important passages from the California Driver Handbook, a 117-page document he knows by heart. One of the questions he often asks: “Who has the right of way in this situation?”

“I have the answer to anything you might ask about driving,” Li promises, and during lessons he offers advice on repairing, renting or buying cars. When I suggested I might take a road trip on Thanksgiving, he had an itinerary for me: “You can take California State Route 1 to Los Angeles,” he said.

Before the pandemic, word of mouth helped Li expand his team to four instructors.

Snorkeling at Laguna Beach. Photo courtesy of Hao Li. Taken July 2019.

But the pandemic has presented a setback. Li, a father of two, languished for three months without students. It was the first time in years that he hadn’t worked 60 hours a week, he said.

“It was shad season,” said Li, who tends to mark events in his life with the fish most likely to be in season.

Li took advantage of his new free time to fish even more, spending four to five hours standing in the Sacramento River in his waders, waiting for schools of fish to arrive. He is poetic in his description of the anticipation he feels as the silver fish, “much bigger than a slipper”, leaps to the surface of the water.

During the agonizing wait for the pandemic to end, he thought about doing what he had done when he arrived in the United States: drive for Uber. But even after six years, Li still describes this period, which he shares with many new immigrants, with bitterness.

“For over a year, I was as numb as a robot, doing only three things a day: eating, sleeping and stepping on the accelerator,” he said.

He did not return, and once the shad season ended in July, and before he went to Monterey to fish for rockfish on the reef, Li’s students began to return. To date, Li’s team has grown to six people, and “student numbers are almost back to pre-pandemic levels, with the exception of students who are stranded in China due to the pandemic. pandemic, flights or visas,” he said.

But he now sees that he also has more competition from other Chinese instructors, so he plans to start a website and buy advertising on Google. “Hopefully it will attract more students and eventually be self-supporting,” he said. The US travel ban on China ended Nov. 8, and Li expects his job to improve further.

This year’s shad season marked another turning point for Li. He became an American citizen. “I totally embraced America!” he says. However, “For first-generation Chinese immigrants like me, there is a barrier between us and much of the culture here. For example, when I go to Oracle Park or to a bar, I don’t feel well. Also, my English is just enough to teach driving,” Li said. “Fishing is almost my only hobby.”

He has already been to Ocean Beach for his first adventure during crab picking season in November. Last Monday, he brought back seven crabs, most of which ended up in his sons’ bellies, along with green onions and ginger.

Even when he is busy, he sets aside half a day to go fishing with other driving school instructors, who are his competitors, but also his dear friends.

Today, he impatiently awaits the return of his favorite season: Shad. Next April, he plans to return to the calm Sacramento River, cast his fishing lure, and reel it in again and again. “Only by repeating this movement can I know if the shad have come,” he said.