“If you don’t pass your driving exam, I won’t be in the mood to fish!”
That was how San Francisco driving instructor Hao “Jack” Li signed a post he sent out on the Chinese social media platform Xiaohongshu to attract new students for his Jin Pai (“Gold Medal”) Driving School. The visual: a photo of himself standing near his car, emblazoned with the words “student driver,” and holding a two-foot rockfish.
The fish is a testament to how Li has managed to teach more than 1,000 immigrant students to drive. When he first started six years ago, his students’ mistakes unnerved him: stop signs, rare in China, meant his students either ignored them or stopped too sharply. Other times, Chinese drivers, trained to be mindful of cyclists, would slow down at intersections and end up blocking traffic.
“I found myself screaming at them,” said Li, even though he considers himself a generally quiet, subdued person. Yelling, however, only made students more nervous, so Li had to change his approach. Fishing, he found, calmed him down. Nowadays, he says, he fishes regularly and never gets angry. Instead, his mantra for students has become, “Good job. Good job.” It’s what I hear as one of his students.
Patience isn’t his only tool. Li also uses props: three two-inch-long 3D car models from the Pixar film “Cars,” in red, blue and brown, to demonstrate reversing, turning, blind spots, and the three-second rule for keeping a safe following distance.
To date, 42-year-old Li and the instructors who work for him have trained some 3,000 drivers in the Bay Area, enough that if they were all sitting behind the wheel, they would fill the parking lot at Oracle Park.
Li says it takes 10 hours, at a cost of $1,000, to get a newbie to pass the behind-the-wheel driving test. Every month, almost 30 of his students, 80 percent of whom are ethnic Chinese, pass the test, he said. Nearly all drove in China before moving to the U.S., and so he finds most of his work is in correcting habits from there. Frequent honking is one of those habits.
“It is very enjoyable to teach a variety of people to drive,” Li said. “And I feel satisfied when my experience can help them save time learning.”
His students have included a cross section of the Bay Area’s Asian community: one with ADHD whose mind was apt to wander; a reporter who failed the test eight times and passed at the ninth attempt with Li’s help; and plenty of techies who work in Silicon Valley.
“They would recommend me and my school in their company’s internal forums,” Li said. “Try naming any Bay Area tech company, and you’ll find I’ve taught them all.”
Every day, starting at 8 a.m. Li might have students to teach as far north as Petaluma or as far south as Santa Cruz. Occasionally he stops in for a meal at AL’s Place on Valencia Street, or Foreign Cinema at 21st and Mission Streets. But he tries to avoid bringing novice drivers to the Mission; the roads are complicated by too many delivery workers.
As we drive through San Francisco’s streets, he quizzes me or spouts off important parts of 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 fixing, renting or buying cars. When I suggested I might make a road trip over Thanksgiving, he had a route for me: “You can take California State Route 1 down to Los Angeles,” he said.
Before the pandemic, word of mouth helped Li expand his team to four instructors.
But the pandemic presented a setback. Li, the father of two children, languished for three months without students. It was the first time in years that he wasn’t working 60 hours a week, he said.
“It was the shad season,” said Li, who tends to mark the events of his life by the fish most likely to be in season.
Li made use of his newfound spare time by fishing 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 experiences before the silvery fish, “much larger than a slipper,” jumps on the surface of the water.
During the agonizing wait for the pandemic to end, he thought about doing what he had done when he first came to the U.S.: driving for Uber. But, even after six years, Li still describes that time, one he shares with many new immigrants, with bitterness.
“For more than a year, I was as numb as a robot, doing only three things every day: eating, sleeping and stepping on the gas,” he said.
He did not return, and once the shad season ended in July, and before he would head to Monterey to fish for rockfish on the reef, Li’s students started to return. To date, Li’s team has expanded to six people, and “the number of students is almost back to pre-pandemic level, aside from those college students who are stuck in China because of the pandemic, flights or visas,” he said.
But he now sees that he also has more competition from other Chinese instructors, so he plans to build out a website and buy advertising on Google. “Hopefully, it will attract more students and pay for itself eventually,” he said. The U.S. travel ban on China ended Nov. 8, and Li expects his job to get even better.
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’s a barrier between us and a lot of the culture here. Like, when I go to Oracle Park or a bar, I just don’t feel right. Plus, my English is just enough to teach driving,” Li said. “Fishing is almost my only pastime.”
Already, he has been to Ocean Beach for his first venture out in the November crab picking season. Last Monday he brought back seven crabs, most of which ended up in his sons’ bellies, along with scallions and ginger.
Even when he’s busy, he sets aside a half-day to go fishing with other driving instructors, who are his competitors, but also his dear friends.
Nowadays, he is looking forward to the return of his favorite: Shad season. Next April, he plans to return to the calm Sacramento River, throw his fishing lure out and reel it in over and over again. “Only by repeating this movement can I know if the shad have come,” he said.