Another set of locked doors.
"For fuck's sake," I muttered, trying the doors again.
For the second time that day, a stranger came over — curious, I'm sure, why two foreigners were attempting forced entry.
"We're looking for this classroom?" Manfriend would start (in Chinese).
"No, you want the other building."
This was not a great omen before our test. The HSK4 test, to be exact.
As I did last year, I had enrolled myself in the prior level of this standardized Chinese test. "Better to take it before all my hard work drains away this summer," I reasoned.
As the test approached, I felt defeated. Out of 600 new words, about 300 stuck.
Manfriend was equally discouraged. He had signed up for the test, too. But while I'd taken classes all year, he had cracked open his textbook only two weeks before the test. Oops.
I had no doubt he'd pass, though. His spoken Chinese was what got us around. He could listen, haggle, argue and joke with damn near anyone.
This was a reading and writing exam, though — the only two areas of Chinese I was any good at.
Anyway, it was finally test day. We found the classroom and settled into our assigned seats. Most of our fellow test-takers were full-time language students who just oozed confidence. The rest of us waited awkwardly.
Listening was up first. My listening comprehension was notoriously shit, yet I kept up well enough. I found the answers I wanted and felt good about them. A pep in my step, I started in on the reading. Things were going well. Surprisingly well.
Folks, I was actually reading Chinese.
No shit, Alex. What else would you be doing?
Hear me out. I was reading the characters, yes. But then, without skipping a beat, I understood it in English. No muddling about, wondering what it meant. I just read.
But how? Had I finally turned a corner in my Chinese education?
More likely, it had something to do with staying up until 3 a.m. the night before, devouring flashcards and reading practice tests.
But still, I'd actually read the Chinese. Short-term retention be damned, I was thrilled.
"So how'd you do?" Manfriend asked. He had already shared his misgivings — a woeful feeling about the writing section and a bunch of unknown characters across the board.
"I feel ... confident?"
"Is that a question?"
It was. And here's why: As we ordered lunch a little later, I still couldn't really understand the cashier's questions. Everyday interactions were still too much. Speaking is the hardest part of all.
"Meh, I still say your Chinese is better than mine," Manfriend insisted.
"Not yet," I replied. But that was as good a goal as any.
Note: I won't receive the results until the 30th. Let's hope I didn't just jinx myself.