Monday, 18 January 2010

Test Terror

Today we tested our students on their English proficiency. We assessed their reading, writing, listening comprehension and speaking ability, and we might as well have skinned them alive and bathed them in boiling oil.

"Don't worry," I whispered to a white-faced girl who was waiting for us to evaluate her speaking ability. She blinked and gave me a watery smile. "Teacher, very excite," said the boy sitting next to her, waiting his turn. "Very nervous." He thumped his fist against his chest to show me how hard his heart was beating.

I nodded sympathetically. "I know exactly how you feel," I told him and the girl, but I don't think either of them heard me.

My students think that I couldn't possibly understand how they feel. They believe that teachers are born into this world wise and all-knowing. That they've never shuffled through notes until dawn, to awake full clothed with heavy eyelids and a heavier heart; never sat there the next morning, trembling, waiting to receive their exam sheets, blood 90-proof caffeine.

Of course they are wrong: all of us have been through this. "Oh, exams! I've forgotten," one of my colleagues said rather breezily during our short break. But I remember my exams with perfect clarity, especially the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, otherwise known as the Nihongo Noryoku Shiken, which I took decades ago. Even now, I can see one of my old exam books and feel my pulse pick up just like that. Really, the trick would be forgetting.

I took the test on Pearl Harbor Day. I only realized this when a Colombian woman on the train happened to mention it. This interesting coincidence didn't improve my mood. I had been studying Japanese for ages, and specifically for the Proficiency Examination for over a year, but I did not feel ready. It had snowed the night before and the roads were slippery. I felt sick and wobbly and utterly miserable and if it weren't for the fact that I'd shelled out a lot of money for the exam, I'd have been tempted to stay in bed.

The test was held in Aoyama Gakuin, a private women’s college. There are four levels of the test, the lowest being level four and the highest level one. Level four is for people who have put in only a few months of study and want to waste their hard-earned cash on a certificate. Level three is harder, but it still doesn’t offer much of a challenge. Level two is when it starts getting tough; people who’ve passed level one are considered ready for Japanese universities. My Japanese teacher had persuaded me to go for for level one. Five minutes before I arrived in Aoyama, I wished to God I’d applied for level three instead.

When I got off the train at Aoyama station, I didn't have to ask for directions: there was a huge throng of people all traveling in the same direction. A small number were obvious foreigners, i.e. European or African-looking. The not-so-obvious ones were Asian, and many of them could easily have passed for Japanese. Until you heard them speak.

A man with a name tag and a bullhorn kept bellowing, "Levels three and four over here!" for the benefit of those who had not spotted the 4-foot square signs with LEVEL THREE and LEVEL FOUR written on them. He said it in Japanese, then English. "We’re over here," an American reminded me, as I walked past. I squared my shoulders and kept going.

The level two and one rooms were the furthest away from the entrance. Shortly after passing the level three room, I'd noticed the crowd was 85% Asian. After we passed the level two room, the crowd was 99% Asian, and people were giving me looks. I ignored them, but I had my registration form at the ready in case anyone really challenged me. A few people tried to tell me in English that I'd missed the previous levels, so I took to saying: "Level one! I’m level one too!" After that, they ignored me.

There were over a hundred people in the level one room. One was a man from New Jersey who claimed he wasn’t nervous. Two were men who looked to be from India. The rest were Chinese. I owe much of my fluency in Japanese to Chinese, Korean, and Brazilian speakers of Japanese, but in the level one room, I felt sadly estranged from the Chinese. None of them knew that I was Mary, the Friendly Japanese-speaking American. I had the distinct feeling they thought I was The Stupid, Stubborn Foreigner who Lost her Way but Never Knew.

Just before the test started, the girl in front of me asked to borrow an eraser. She said she'd been studying in Japan for six months, working illegally as a waitress during the day. My jaw dropped: only six months? I'd been studying Japanese for over six years and I felt ill-prepared. "I thought I'd put an eraser in my pencil case," she whispered, "but I went to bed so late last night, I guess I forgot." She heaved a deep sigh. "I'm so tired of studying Japanese." I handed her the eraser. "Me too!"

The test started at ten and finished at four with a two-hour break for lunch. My heart rate stayed at around 110 beats a minute the entire time. It was like going through a high impact aerobics class without the high impact.

The time went by in a haze of nerves and misery. There were short multiple choice reading passages with hundreds upon hundreds of Chinese characters (even in Japanese, they call them kanji, 'Chinese characters'); there was a graph with numbers on it which immediately sent my mind into a frenzy of panic which had nothing to do with Japanese: Oh no! Math! There were of fish and corresponding descriptions you had to match: A blunt snout, a large, fringed dorsal fin...

When the lunch break was announced, I turned to the girl in front of me. "How are you finding it?" She shook her head. "I have no chance of passing. I will have to go back to China." Suddenly I felt ashamed at how easy it all was for me. Not the language part –- that was surely as hellish for me as it was for her. After all, she was Chinese and she already knew plenty more than the 2,000 characters you needed for the test. But I came from a wealthy country; I was a native speaker of English with a college degree, so I had skills I could sell in Japan: teaching English, rewriting, proof-reading. All this woman had was a six-month visa and a crappy job. "Maybe you can come back next year?" I asked. She shook her head. "No. I will go back to China and work in a factory," she said with a sad smile.

The man from New Jersey popped his gum and said he'd done fine. So we did what foreigners often do in Japan: we sized each other up and tried to gauge who had the best Japanese. What had he gotten for number sixteen, the thing about the Industrial Revolution? What had I put as the second kanji for chosakuka, writer? We finally gave up when we realized we were evenly matched.

Listening comprehension was left to the very end. Stupidly, we had to turn the page in the middle of some questions, even as the tape was playing. The tape recorder was at top volume, but with over a hundred people turning their pages all at slightly different times, it was very easy to miss key words. Each item was only played twice. After two or three such experiences, we all got great at turning our pages quietly.

When we finished, we were all asked to have our ID cards ready. The assistants looked from our cards to our faces and asked us for our names, as they had done at designated times throughout the day. They hardly looked at me and the man from New Jersey, but paid careful attention to the Chinese.

As we left the room, all of us –- Chinese, Indians, Americans –- were suddenly mates. Wah, that was ridiculous! You’d think they could have put the page breaks AFTER the questions instead of RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE! Two women from Shanghai wanted to know where I'd studied Japanese and for how long. A thin fellow from Wuhan told me that a friend of his had studied at my university in Southern Japan. A man from Beijing agreed with us that the listening comprehension questions themselves were not hard, but the page-turning had been a real headache. Half a dozen people voiced their amazement that I could speak Japanese.

We milled out of the Aoyama-Gakuin, a crowd one hundred strong, all talking a mile a minute. What about question, two ladies talking –- one says, "Do you want to come to party on Saturday?" And second lady says, "No, sorry, I am too busy, cannot come." Then she says "But wait – perhaps –-" and tape finishes! What do you put for that: she go to party or she not go to party? All of a sudden, we had no end of things to say to one another.

The station was on the other side of the street and we all jay-walked, every single one of us. A policeman could have arrested the lot of us and made a fortune, cars could have mown us down –- we didn’t care. We were all high on post-Nihongo Noryoku Shiken. My frayed nerves were beginning to relax; suddenly I felt positively euphoric. I would go back home, tell my supportive boyfriend all about the day, and have a beer. No, not a beer -- I would have several.

"Teacher, very excite, VERY stress," whispers the white-faced girl sitting opposite me. "Very nervous!"

"Think how relieved you'll feel tonight," I say. "And do you drink beer?"


Vijaya said...

I loved reading this, Mary. Oral examinations are the worst for me ... but isn't it lovely when it's all over. Alas, I don't drink beer.

Angela said...

Thanks for sharing this, Mary. Oh I hated exams in college, but at least they were in my native tongue! I can't imagine testing as you did!

Robert the Skeptic said...

The secret is to drink the beer BEFORE the test... it lowers the anxiety level.

Of course, take this advice from a guy who earned his B.S. degree in General Science with an unimpressive "C" average.

kara said...

all of this makes me even more glad i opted to NOT go the grad school route. i love a life with no tests.

Helen said...

I was always so bad at tests - mainly because I was so bad at studying. I would cram like crazy the night before, which always made me too tired to be nervous. Remarkably I managed to pass everything! I often wonder how I would do if I actually applied myself to something.......
I wonder how that Chinese girl ever went? I hope she did well and had the chance to stay in Japan.

Robin said...

That's a great story! I love how everyone assumed you were too dumb to go to the correct test room, instead of realizing that you spoke Japanese so well! How cool!

My most horrible tests have been my professional boards. I study my butt off and sweat through them, burning the requisite 10,000 calories. For my "Child Boards", I asked a pompous colleague in town if he'd like to study with me. He said "no", that he wasn't going to study, and that I should know the material well enough that I shouldn't have to study, either. He failed. Hahahaha! (Sorry. That was beneath me.) Hahahaha! (Who cares.)

Postman said...

Not only is this a rollicking good story. It's also a reality check. There goes MY confidence level for learning Japanese (beyond Level 4). Thanks for the wake-up call...[gulp]...I felt some of your anxiety sympathetically, across the boundaries of time and space. I know the feeling well and can sympathize, even though (as Robert the Skeptic) I obtained a degree without the most celebrated record.

Mary Witzl said...

Vijaya -- There is nothing like the rush you get when your exams are over, is there?

The noryoku shiken didn't have oral exams, which I thought was a shame at the time. Now I'm pretty sure I'd have been too nervous to manage it well.

I don't drink beer anymore either, but it tasted great after that exam. Axel grease would probably have gone down well for that matter.

Angela -- I hated taking exams myself, whatever language they're in! Having to actually PAY to take one was one of the worst things. But the feeling of bliss I got after it was over almost made up for it.

Robert -- Actually, the secret is beta blockers -- I discovered that when I had to take my driving test. My doctor gave me a couple of doses and I managed to get through my test without succombing to the jitters, thoroughly compos mentis. If I'd known about beta blockers before all my test-taking, life would have been a LOT easier.

Kara -- I'm living a life with no tests right now and it is VERY good. But tests are good for you, occasionally. I love telling my kids that.

Helen -- My eldest daughter favors your method of test-taking. She waits until the last possible moment, then crams like fury. That would turn me into a jibbering idiot, but it works for her the same way it works for you: she almost always gets good grades.

I never found out what happened to that poor girl. I assume she went back to China, having blown her one and only chance. It seemed so unfair that she had only the six months to get up to scratch. All she needed was a little more time.

Robin -- Honestly, that would have made my day! That's beneath me too, isn't it? But really, after making such a pompous statement, Dr I-Don't-Need-to-Study was just begging for it.

Here's to test-taking as a weight loss method -- I was definitely a lot skinnier after all that studying. Maybe it was all that adrenalin zipping around in my bloodstream. Too bad we can't market it...

Postman -- Well, the degree I obtained wasn't all that great either. And don't let me discourage you from going for level one or two! Believe me, if I could pass level one, so could you. All you have to do is study doggedly for many years, then sign yourself up for it. Stubborness helps a lot.

Kappa no He said...

You went for level one. Woa. I'm still debating taking it later this year, as in the end of this year. I took 2 ages ago. I so remember those nerves.

Bish Denham said...

Except for a few exceptional people who really do LOVE taking tests, I think most of us can identify.

Every year I had to take the Stanford Achievement Test, which my school administered because it was not accredited. Those yearly SAT scores were accepted by colleges everywhere. But good heavens! What a sweat producer. I dreaded taken them.

And Mary, there's a little something special for you on my blog. :)

Mary Witzl said...

Kappa -- Take it! It's a horrible experience, but it definitely makes you study. I used my commuting time as study time whenever I managed to find a seat.

A colleague of mine in Tokyo took it every single December. He failed the first he took it, passed it the second time, then failed it the third time. I was in AWE of him. Once I'd taken it, that was it: I had no desire to take it again and fail. But my work pal's Japanese got so much better. And that was why he did it: he knew it would make him study.

Bish -- Thank you for that award!

You had to take the SATs every year? What a horrible thing to have to do! I have a friend who says she enjoyed taking tests right up through graduate school. My eldest daughter really enjoyed going to the pediatrician for her inoculations. Takes all kinds, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

I have to say I loved it. Felt like I was there.

deedeeinfrance said...

I wanted to keep reading this story of yours. Speaking in public still does that to me.

Charlie said...

Another one of your wonderful stories, Mary, with a great ending.

What I like most about this post (and many of your others) is all the people you've met and conversed with from all over the world. You've been a lucky lady, able to learn first-hand about their cultures, traditions, foods, taboos—the list goes on.

We can do that to a point on Blogger, but it isn't the same as being there.

Charles Gramlich said...

I saw test terror when I told my students we were going to have a test on the 2nd day of class and I wasn't going to tell them what was on it other than stuff they should already know. It was fun.

Anonymous said...

What a great story! I, too, got total test anxiety, and still do.
Students are funny though. I used to get the classic enormous font and margins papers, and I would tell them, "I was a student too! I know what you're doing." They really wouldn't get it. Also, they were surprised when I caught their blatent plagiarism. stupid do they think we are?

MG Higgins said...

This brought back so many heart-revving memories of years of test-taking. You weave such a wonderful tale.

Kim Ayres said...

They seem to feel that teachers are born into this world wise and fully-knowledgeable

In fact all children seem to believe this of all adults.

And teenagers begin to thing the opposite - that all adults were born stupid and haven't a clue what life is really like

Mary Witzl said...

Anonymous -- Thank you. İ'm glad you think that's a good thing. Now I'm wondering who you are...

DeeDee -- İ definitely agree about public speaking. The first time I had to speak in public happened to be in Japan. I hadn't been forewarned, and as soon as I got on the stage, the blood drained out of my head and I keeled right over. I will never forget the horror of it. Got a bump on my head too.

Charlie -- I am so glad you liked this for the reasons you give. Meeting all these people is the one thing about my job I LOVE. There are plenty of things about my job to hate, but the incredible diversity of people and all the languages they speak are just fantastic. Writing about all of this is a delight and having people read what I write and claiming to enjoy it is absolutely the icing on the cake. Thank you for that.

Charles -- Heh heh heh. I feel so vicariously sadistic, enjoying the thought of your squirming students. I'll bet they were outraged too: the thought of being tested on stuff they were supposed to know! And yet if this happened to me, I'd be chewing my fingernails to stubs...

Elizabeth -- We knew all about huge fonts, wide margins and just how many 'thats' you could squeeze into an essay, didn't we? My students are always amazed when I show them how to increase their word counts. And NONE of them seem to realize that we know how to google too!

MGH -- Thank you for that nice compliment. Just writing this made my mouth go dry. All those years just slid away.

Kim -- It's so true, isn't it? We go from omniscient and omnipotent to the stupidest bumbling idiots in all creation. Fortunately, at some point we get it all back -- if we live long enough. Fingers crossed for all of us.

Falak said...

Exams..... Can't live with them and can't live without them. I would conveniently blank out during most of my math exams. And if I wrote the paper well then I'd have no memory of what I exactly wrote.Public speaking and presentations are a nightmare. I go up on stage and then the next thing I can recollect is stumbling down towards my friends.But I clearly remeber the relief that washes over me after all the exams, speeches and presentations. Thanks for such a great read Mary!

Chris Eldin said...

Wow. This is an amazing story. Okay, what are you doing with all these stories of yours? At least send them to Reader's Digest. They'd be perfect in many magazines, but I want you to have the largest readership possible.

I almost want to ask my (future) students to check out your blog. But I want to ask you first...


Mary Witzl said...

Falak -- The euphoria you fall into after finishing an exam has got to beat anything a pharmaceutical product could induce. It's not unlike the euphoria you experience when you get a two-week (almost) semester break. I could dance and sing right now! And having readers tell me they like what I've written is pretty euphoria-producing itself, so thank YOU.

Chris -- Yes, do send your students my way -- I'd love that! And don't worry: I won't send mine your way. I've never given any of MY students my blog details. Can you guess why?

I've gotten a few of these stories published in e-zines and one of them (Silver Divorce, Golden Opportunity) netted me $100 and got published in an anthology. I haven't queried widely, but the consensus from agents so far is that I'm not famous enough for these to sell. I'm still plugging away, though, and I've now made this a teaching AND language learning memoir as the two are very related. In essence, I teach EFL to help support my family, but also my language-learning habit. (And thank you for asking!) It means so much to me that people come to read what I've written.

Chris Eldin said...

Thanks Mary! I might do that! I want to... we'll see. I don't want to be too far out of the box because I'm just starting. But your stories resonate on so many levels.

Anne Spollen said...

I never got the folks who would opt for the oral report rather than the written one. They were the worst way to be tested...

My college roommate took Japanese I and was really arrogant because it was so incredibly easy for her. She aced the course.

A couple of months later, she sheepishly dropped Japanese 2 -- with the admission that it was "completely incomprehensible to Americans"

So congrats on your abilities!

Postman said...

Stubbornness, eh? Well, maybe...if I don't get a job soon, I just may pack up and head to Japan and stay there for two or three years...if I crack some serious books, might I do it then?

Marian said...

I'm really impressed, Mary, mostly because my foreign language skills are rustier than a tin can left out in the rain for years.

I was in the UAE for half my life. Never learned any Arabic beyond "Good morning" and "Thank you". Everyone there spoke English.

I learned French so I could pass the requirement for immigration to Quebec. When I had my interview, the consulate guy did all the talking while I nodded like a pigeon and said, "Oui, oui, je comprends" from time to time. My whole future hinged on that interview, so of course, once I passed I was so relieved that I never spoke French again.

Mary Witzl said...

Chris -- If you've got any students who are really into English, why not pair them up as pen friends with some of mine? I don't know if yours will be interested in this, but let me know if they are and we can give it a try. My students need tons more writing practice, and anything based on real life is infinitely better than artificially generated in class.

Anne -- Oh, I am with you 100% on that! I had to go through an oral examination as part of my M.A., and it was sheer hell. I'd FAR rather do any kind of written test, thesis, etc. than have to speak. I'm generally no slouch in the talking department, but when it comes to being extemporaneously succinct, I'm just stunningly inadequate.

Your roommate should have kept on with the Japanese, though. I SWEAR to you that it is not incomprehensible to Americans; she'd have found that out herself if she'd persevered.

Postman -- Yes. I'm no genius, but I'm like a terrier when it comes to hanging in there. I think all the people who kept telling me I'd never learn Japanese helped a lot too: it was so cool to prove them wrong. So go to Japan and have at it -- you'll see that there are hundreds of non-Japanese-speaking people who've managed to master the language. Go for it!

Marian -- What I do isn't impressive! It's mainly a 'Fools go where angels fear to tread' sort of thing.

I've got a few Arabic-speaking students (several from Dubai, one Palestinian), and I'd love to learn Arabic -- especially the writing, which looks intriguing.

You live in Quebec? I had my one and only thoroughly satisfying French experience in Quebec City when I was nineteen: a French-speaking person was not only nice to me, but very encouraging and sweet. Because of her, I hung in there and took two more semesters of French.

Patrick said...

Wow, I wish I'm as good as you in Japanese. I'm barely progressing in my self-study due to my lack of time for it. =)

Anonymous said...

I loved reading this story. Did you share it with your students?

Nandini said...

Mary, Reading this made my last exam in Delhi University (with a power cut, in the middle of summer) flash before my eyes! Oh, the horror!!! That, and I have a sudden urge to go to Japan. No, actually, I feel I've just been there, thanks to you!

Marian said...

Hi Mary,

I must confess, I told the consulate I wanted to live in Quebec so that they'd approve my migration (though I had to learn French to prove my sincerity). After I got in I ran straight to Toronto and haven't budged in three years.

Mary Witzl said...

Patrick -- You are young, right? You've got tons of time to learn -- especially if you go to Japan. I know how you feel about time, though. When I hear some of my non-Turkish colleagues speaking Turkish, I feel so wistful. I have NO TIME at all to learn Turkish properly...though I might if I were prepared to give up writing.

Gypsy -- If I could speak Turkish, I would definitely share this with my students. The brighter and more hard-working ones know all about my Japanese-learning past, but they are a tiny minority.

Nandini -- You've just described one of my worst nightmares. I'm no big fan of cold weather, but very hot weather just does me in. The thought of taking an exam in Delhi sans air-conditioning makes me weak in the knees. And grateful for winter.

Actually, we had a power cut when we were doing the students' speaking evaluations. We're all so used to them we just shrugged and got on with it. Wish we'd had candles...

Marian -- That is a great story! And you got a language out of it, so it's even better. They say there's nothing like having a motivation to help you learn a language. And I don't blame you for liking Toronto.

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