Last month I took a Chinese exam, level 4 of the HSK. HSK stands for Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (“chinese level test”, Chinese naming conventions being very imaginative) and there are six levels in total. I took level 2 in February 2017 and level 3 in September 2017, and did fairly well in both, being well prepared for both exams. The jump between levels is quite big – the amount of vocabulary doubles each time – but I knew that if I didn’t sign up for the exam, I wouldn’t force myself to learn the vocab (instead I would focus on “fun” vocab – so it’s not like I’d completely neglect learning).
I did a mock exam a fortnight beforehand and scored 160/300. The pass mark is 180. I’d not done well (though hadn’t failed…) in the mock exams for both the previous levels, as the format takes a little getting used to, so I tried not to be too worried. However, I was aware that there were major gaps in my knowledge. Over the next week or so I carried on doing mock exams, practising the bits I found difficult. I also kept trying to cram in new vocabulary, spending my commute drilling new words and trying to read and review on lunchbreaks and quiet moments.
The week before the exam I did more mock exams, getting colleagues to mark the writing sections for me. In one I scored 200 but generally I was getting between 150 and 190. I grew increasingly worried.
I’d bought the textbooks for HSK 4 but only worked my way through 6 of the 20 chapters and I wondered what I’d been doing with my time instead of studying or revising.
The day before the exam I was working until nearly 9pm and decided to go home and try to get a decent night’s sleep instead of doing any lastminute cramming. I woke up at 6am and read over some sentences, while drinking a cup of coffee.
I felt really stupid as I felt like I’d had plenty of time to study for the exam. And I felt like the exam really shouldn’t be this hard – after all, I live in China, I’m around Chinese all the time, this isn’t even that hard an exam (children in first grade at school will learn all of this). I started to cry, and once I started, I couldn’t stop.
At about 8am I managed to get myself together a little bit and took a taxi to the exam centre. The taxi driver asked if I was Russian. I went to McDonalds and bought a coffee. I felt sick as I walked down the street, trying to find the entrance to the building. How ironic would it be if I couldn’t even find it?
The exam room itself was reasonably sized, computers at individual desks, most already with the candidate sat patiently behind. My desk was the one nearest the door. I logged in using the log in details taped to the desk for me (although I had to ask where these were, as I didn’t spot them). I checked the headset. I looked about. Then I waited, watching the countdown timer, feeling worse and worse, although not crying any more (small mercies).
The exam started. Listening first. I tried to read the questions before the listening extract each time, to give me an idea about what to listen out for. Some questions were very straightforward and others I felt like I had no clue – I guess this is to be expected when you simply don’t know big chunks of the vocab. I tried to keep calm although it was hard to stay positive. By the end of the listening section I felt pretty tired (I normally give myself a break when doing mock exams at home!).
In the reading section, my teacher had advised I do part 1, then part 3 and finally part 2. Part 1 I normally find very straightforward but I knew I hadn’t got this right, which made my spirits sink yet further. Part 3 is very very long and I felt exhausted by the end, but tried to remain focused on part 2, which is really hard (my teacher had said that it’s possible to spend the whole time on section 2 and still not get it all right, as it’s so tricky).
Finally on to the writing section! The first part is rearranging words into sentences, making sure that the order is correct. Some of these seemed quite easy, others I wasn’t so sure about, others I knew that I thought were easy but were no doubt wrong. The second part is writing a sentence using a picture and prompt word. I spent ages trying to work out whether a particular word that I’m semi-familiar with is a noun or a verb. I settled on it being a noun. I checked all my sentences. I rechecked them. I made some adjustments. I changed them back. I checked it all again. I had 30 seconds left, and rather than click submit and actively commit to finishing the exam, I let it time out and submit on my behalf.
I put on my coat, packed away my passport and headed downstairs. I stumbled out into the street and looked up the word from the writing section (it was a verb, not a noun) and decided not to look up anything else.
I posted on wechat about how I thought the exam had gone and messaged a few friends who’d wished me luck, telling them how awful it was. My teacher suggested I go and get a hot drink and I thought that was an excellent idea so went to buy a hot chocolate. I was totally sure I’d failed and only after going to the gym and sweating out some of the self-hate, then spending the afternoon drinking coffee with a good friend, was I able to put it out of my mind and decide to wait and see what the results were.
Normally the results only take a fortnight, but Chinese New Year meant that it took 3 weeks for the results to come out. By then I’d reconciled myself to the idea of retaking the exam. I almost didn’t bother checking the results online until I went to work, but decided that would be silly and I’d rather just know.
I entered my name. I entered my candidate number. The page opened. What?!?
Surely some mistake?
I immediately sent a screenshot of the page to my teacher, my classmate and Liam, then I just stared at the page for a little while. Then I posted it on wechat, partly for the head pats but also because I’d promised myself that I’d post the results regardless of what they were, full transparency and all that. People have been taking the piss a little, saying that they knew I’d be fine, that I was worried for nothing, that I should have believed in myself more, etc. I hate those kind of people who come out of exams and say they’ve done badly when they know they haven’t, but I genuinely thought I’d tanked it.
No exams for a while for me!