(Alexandra Sieh / Boulder Daily Camera)

Sleepily reviewing a new grammar point, I looked up from my Chinese textbook to greet my teacher last week.

We went through the usual greetings, and I flipped to our lesson when my teacher remembered: She had recently signed up my coworker for the HSK exam.

Now, the HSK exam, or Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, is a placement test to assess a foreigner's Chinese language level. (It translates into "Chinese language test.") There are six levels. The first two are in pinyin and therefore not really taken too seriously. Levels 3 and 4 are in Chinese characters, growing increasingly more difficult toward Level 5. Level 6? That's true-blue fluent.

Anyway, at my teacher's announcement, I raised my eyebrow. This particular coworker, while a nice guy, was one I always felt in competition with. Be it in the number of class hours we taught or which unit we were working on in our HSK 3 textbook, I felt a strong need to be better.

I'm not proud of this. As everyone should know, it's all about doing what's right for you. Go at your own pace, especially in education, and you'll reach your goal.

But like hell could I allow this man to take the test — and potentially pass — before me. The man who always joked he was just better at life abroad than I was.

Ugh.


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I'd been tossing the test idea around for a while. Sure, I was only just now wrapping up the Level 3 book. And yes, many people considered the HSK exam itself to be a waste of time — more an ego boost than a career builder.

Yet I always knew I'd try for the exam eventually. It's my nature — I like that sort of definable measure of progress. I also believed this lifelong procrastinator (and therefore perfect journalist) needed the motivation to actually hit the books. If I was going to spend money on the exam, I wouldn't let myself waste it.

Besides, as I'll be traipsing around America and England this summer, who knew where all this newly acquired vocabulary would go if I waited until September.

"Well," I told my teacher. "I can't have this. Sign me up."

Soon we were off: quickly attaching my photo to the application; picking a date and location; taking a practice test online that, I'm shocked to say, I didn't fail.

In fact, as I later pointed out to Manfriend over dinner, I was only three points from a passing score.

"That's 12 points or so better than Coworker," I went on before stuffing tofu in my mouth.

"This from the girl who says she isn't competitive," he said, rolling his eyes.

"Me? Competitive?" Surely, it couldn't be. I never thought of myself that way. I'm just meek, unassuming Alexandra.

And then my subconscious snorted, rolling her eyes, too. Meek, my sweet tushy. It was time to show everyone what I was made of.

Mid-level Chinese-language proficiency, here I come.

Follow Alexandra's adventures overseas: coloradodaily.com/columnists. Stalk her: instagram.com/wildeyed_wandering.