To my left, sat an older Korean man who struggled with the proctor’s English instructions. To my right, sat a ten-year-old Japanese girl who swung her feet back and forth under her chair because her toes did not yet touch the ground.
We sat at desks waiting to demonstrate our Mandarin Chinese proficiency via the 汉语水平考试 III 级 (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi level 3).
Only a few minutes earlier, I’d burst from an elevator out-of-breath and into a lobby full of quiet language students. They uniformly glanced up from their review sheets to appraise me: every bit of my skin shinned with a gloss of sweat and the neck, armpits and waist of my green t-shirt were darkened by heavy patches of soggy perspiration. Their appraisal calmed them greatly: God, I might be nervous, but at least I’m not an anxious train wreck of sweaty fear!
A short time earlier I had been sitting on a bus slowly creeping through strangely heavy Saturday traffic. I thought that taking the bus from Central to the University of Hong Kong would be a quick 13 minute journey. It was not.
The bus inched forward so slowly that I had time to closely study the displays of dried shark fins in the Sheung Wan shop fronts and to carefully identify the paper offerings hung out (iPads, Rolexes and chauffeur-driven cars), which could be bought and burnt as gifts for the dead.
Fifteen minutes later, when the bus crept by a shop selling edible swallows’ nests displayed in glass jars, I became frantic with worry.
Gauging our pace of progression and consulting a map, I realized that my only chance of making it to the exam on time was to go by foot. Jumping from the bus, I started running. I ran past pensioners with shopping carts, jumped over puddles, swore at couples taking up the entire sidewalk and sprinted two kilometers uphill.
Arriving at the university with ten minutes to spare, I still had to find the precise building amongst a spaghetti of roads curving through the hillside-perched campus. Shit.
I ran to a security guard who looked at my stricken face and slowly said, “Do not worry. It is very easy.” He then carefully explained how I could quickly cut my way across campus.
Three minutes to make it to the sixth floor! I pressed the elevator button frantically.
A thirteen-year-old student of South-Asian descent walked up to the elevator bank and waited with me. He looked over and said, “Don’t worry it’s still not yet one o’clock.” Politely ignoring the sweat running out of every pore on my body, he asked if I’d reviewed the key vocabulary words. I could see that he was gripping a sheet of neatly written Chinese characters marked up with an elaborate highlighting system. He then sighed and said, “The bad thing about this test is that there is no chance for distinction or merit. It’s just pass or fail.”
Merit be damned, I was overjoyed to have made it on time.
Entering the exam room, scripted instructions read by the proctor about using 2B pencils gave me time to catch my breath, while the strong air conditioning dried out my sodden clothing.
Ninety minutes later, the Chinese proficiency test was over. The reading and listening sections were exactly as expected, but the writing section was a challenge. Both the thirteen-year-old from the elevator and the ten-year-old swinging her legs under the desk to my right, agreed.
Original photo sources:
- “Run Jen Run” is modified from a screen shot of the 1998 film Run Lola Run. Please note that I do not have “German red” hair.
- The photograph of the Pillar of Shame, which commemorates the Tiananmen Square Massacre, is via the University of Hong Kong’s Alumni Association blog here. (I have slightly cropped and modified their photo. I didn’t have time to stop and take my own!) More about Jens Galschiot’s Pillar of Shame can be read here.