I’d given myself a challenge, I knew that. I knew it in October when I made the decision, and put a plan in place to lighten the challenge as much as possible. But to suddenly be in January, in a new year, with the challenge staring me down was no less daunting.
A month away from university, including two full weeks of missed classes, to have an extended Christmas break at home and return to China and straight into Semester 1 final exams.
Stage 1: riotously succeed in the midterm exams to necessitate as low a score as possible in finals to make the overall pass grade. ACHIEVED.
Stage 2: take textbooks home to Wales and study every day, just like you would at class in Shanghai, to keep up with the curriculum. LOL. I unpacked my books into a file holder and only touched them to put them back in my suitcase on December 29th.
Stage 3: use apps etc to maintain background awareness of the look and feel of the language. Another fail. This was actually the most surprising setback to my plan. I hadn’t fully appreciated just how much being surrounded by Mandarin props up my learning. Not only in hearing it everywhere I go, but in seeing the characters too. Perhaps if I lived in London I could have maintained a very loose connection, but Hawarden, North Wales, doesn’t have so much in the way of multilingual signage or even a Chinatown.
Stage 4: return to China; pick up exactly where I left off; riotously succeed in Finals.
I had such a glorious time. It began with the wedding of two of my closest friends to each other and ended with the wedding of one of Ro’s closest friends (featuring the above misty morning), and in between was stuffed with some really tip-top Christmas lazing, hilarious catch-ups with friends and somewhere in the region of 56 Hallmark Christmas movies. Even if I had to return to China and fail my semester, causing the mind-numbing repetition of the same classes in semester 2 (will he fail? will he pass?), 3 Christmassy weeks in the UK were completely worth it.
We arrived in Shanghai on the morning of New Years Eve and slammed into the worst jetlag ever. That weekend we went out for a walk and I stopped to have a little sit down on a park bench and fell fully asleep, like a tramp. If Roland hadn’t been there to wake me, in bemusement and shame, then who knows how long I would have been out for. From this point I had one week to revise all of the Mandarin I had learnt, as well as catching up on 2 weeks of the most advanced vocabulary and grammar (at beginner level) without the help of a teacher.
The Wheels Go On
So I hit the books. I have literally never studied harder for anything in my life. The reading exam required the most work; there were around 500 characters to memorise and, in a complicated upgrade to the midterm, actually know how to use. Mandarin at this point maintains its basic logic, but with detailed add-ons, like The Sims expansion packs. The rules remain rigid; they just have to be memorised. One of the biggest differences to English, I’ve found during my studying, is that it’s much harder to work out the meaning of a character or a grammar construct from its context. You either know it or you don’t.
The Wheels Begin to Wobble (can wheels wobble? What I mean is the wheels are one step away from falling off)
Exam 1: Reading. I had done my work and was reasonably confident that I could recognise most of the characters I needed to and string some sentences together. I arrived at the exam aware that the midterm had taken me around 45 minutes with 15 minutes of checking through (90 minutes are allocated). I started the exam with this pacing in mind, even being bold enough to sketch some answers in pencil knowing that I’d have time to ink them in later when I was sure. There were immediately a couple of characters that I didn’t know, but that was fine; having the possibility of 100% swiped away was freeing (and devastating). I continued my leisurely way through page 2 and 3 and… 4? And 5? For some reason I hadn’t even considered an exam longer than 3 pages. What’s on the bonus pages? OH ONLY TWO HALF PAGE PASSAGES WRITTEN ENTIRELY IN CHARACTERS WITH COMPREHENSION QUESTIONS UNDERNEATH.
This was not necessarily a problem; after all, I can read sentences in isolation, so it stands to reason that I can read ten or so sentences in sequence. But I wasn’t mentally prepared to undertake this task, so I had a mini meltdown. I was also desperate for a wee but it seemed like going to the toilet was not an option. I did manage to finish the exam and then sprint to the toilet, but I was not convinced that I’d left behind my best work.
The Wheels Come Off (can wheels ‘come off’?)
Immediately following Reading we had Exam 2: Listening. The enormous scope of material that had to be memorised for Reading had left me with very little time to study for Listening. But how can one really study for a listening exam anyway? I knew from the inter-exam bitch about the extent of the reading exam that my ears were working; what more could I ask for?
If there’s one takeaway from this blog let it be this: study for listening exams. I could understand so little of what was being said, or indeed what we had to do – the exam, including answer options, was written in characters so trying to work out what was on the paper as well as trying to decipher the recorded conversations felt impossible. This was an agitated, frustrating experience.
The Wheels Go Back On
I had overnight to prepare for Exam 3: Speaking, which was to include a new delight: freetalk. At the end of the exam I’d be presented with 4 topics and would have to choose one to talk about for 2 minutes. Terrifying. I decided to put all of my eggs in 3 baskets and prepare monologues about the weather, my family and my hobbies, and then pray really hard that one of them appeared on the paper.
I arrived at the classroom ahead of my scheduled 9am slot to find that lots of people were late and I was being ushered straight in. This was a problem because:
- No chance to undertake essential pre-exam meditation/preparation/freaking out
- I had a coffee but no water, making dry mouth all but certain
- I had to to a MANDARIN SPEAKING EXAM BEFORE 9AM
But every cloud: instead of going after vivacious Wingee, who, you might remember from my midterm blog, totally threw me off my preparation time, I was going after gentle, softly spoken and, I hate to say it, not especially bright Alex. His quiet answers and long, awkward silences provided the perfect environment for me to read through the paper, and discover, to my absolute delight, that I could answer all of the questions. And, to a surge of delight so strong it’s a wonder I didn’t leap on the desk and punch the air, talk to me about your hobbies was one of the freetalk subjects.
The only person left to sabotage me was me. Isn’t it funny, I thought, the dread at what was to come only mildly alleviated by my growing confidence, that we put ourselves through these situations? I’ve done this before and hated it, and yet here I am doing it again in the knowledge that it will be worse. But I’m a free man; nobody is making me do this. I could just walk out of here and focus on the exam Steven you absolute cretin; the time for pondering the existential nature of spoken exams has long passed.
Overthinking aside, I haven’t left an exam feeling that good since I sat Grade 5 Music Theory in 2002.
The Wheels Stay On
Our teachers mark the exams very, very quickly. In fact, the speaking results were posted before noon on the day of the exam. It’s a very peculiar thrill, logging in to find out an exam mark; that coursing conflict of being desperate to see and never wanting to see ever. I needed a 60% average in each of the modules to pass the semester. My midterm grade and the ‘class participation’ marks from our teachers put me in a strong position (I only actually needed to get 22% in Reading to scrape though).
I bombed in listening. The only way I could have excelled would have been with lucky guesses, and would I really have relished that kind of victory (yes, absolutely 100%, every time). Still, 64% on the exam brought my average to 77%. It was a pass, even if it disappointed me deep down inside.
My Reading exam score was 91%, which meant that the only questions I got wrong were the ones I knew I’d got wrong, for an average of 95%. Speaking was 96% for an average of 94%.
I guess there’s no real way of rounding up this very smug blog without seeming hugely self-congratulatory. But I am proud of myself. I’m mainly proud of my teachers though, who have done a really amazing job of coaxing a linguist out of me.
Semester 2, during which I’ll be studying Level 3 Mandarin commences on February 20th (why yes, I am on a 5 and half week holiday now) with exams in the middle of April and the end of June, so keep your eyes peeled for overly-long blogs about those around then.