The Positivity Plan

I do not see myself as a particularly pessimistic person. I’m not a super optimist either; I will grant you that, but I have my moments. However through this fall, despite all the great things we have had the opportunity to do, I would say my overall feeling has not been upbeat. It is the language training.

Please, do not get me wrong. I really do know that the chance to be PAID to learn a language is an amazing benefit. I do in fact have fun in class and the Chinese department gets high marks from me; I have had wonderful teachers. Yet at the end of the training is a test and I will admit to having some rather strong test anxiety.

I know. Who likes tests? Every time I try to explain my anxiety I am told that no one likes tests, everyone gets nervous. I did not find this particularly helpful. Then a colleague mentioned that she had attended a test taking brown bag and a woman from the Language Consultation Services section spoke about just such a strategy. The strategy of knowing it’s normal to be nervous.

Apparently some study was conducted in which before an exam half of the students were given a card to read and half were not. On this card are simply a few sentences saying that test anxiety is a normal feeling and that some sense of nervousness can actually improve performance. After the exam those who had read the card felt both more calm and performed better.

I did not know if it were a true study or not but I was intrigued, and desperate, enough to soon after make a visit to the Language Consultation Services in search of this calming card. I made it clear I just wanted the magic before-the-test-card, but the consultant had me sit down while she looked for the cards amidst the candy-gram bags she was in the process of making and which littered her desk. As she searched I continued to explain I just needed this card and I would be on my way as the problem was not so much me as the test. Twenty minutes later I am armed with the card, several sheets of paper with strategies for test anxiety, and a suggestion to view a TED talk on YouTube.

A fellow diplomat posted a link to some beautiful bracelets with positive/affirmation messages. I loved the idea of the bracelets and considered their test charm effectiveness a plus. I had already decided that during my test I would carry in a photo of my daughter to both remind me that there are bigger and more important things in my life and also that, hell, if I can give birth then I can get through a two hour language test. Now I would also wear bracelets that would remind me to “enjoy the journey”, to “believe” and that I am “fearless.” I have done a lot of tough things in my life – such as the world’s second highest paragliding jump in Turkey, a six day trek in Nepal’s Annapurna mountains, and a two day slow boat ride down the Mekong River, as well as about a dozen half marathons-I have even taken the language test at FSI before, THREE times before. I wish I felt it had become easier, but I don’t. I would rather run a half marathon.

Now I was literally armed with some positive messages; I decided to watch the TED Talk. The talk is by Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist, who talks on how body language, particularly how one poses one’s body, can affect not only how other’s perceive us but also how we perceive ourselves. She posits that “power posing,” or standing or sitting in a manner that exudes confidence, for even two minutes a day can actually improve our chances for success. Pretty crazy, huh? Yet a few days after watching the video I found myself in my kitchen, with the microwave timer on two minutes, standing with my legs apart, hands on hips, head up, chin up, imagining myself to be doing my best impression of Wonder Woman.

At first I thought, “This is nuts!” Then I thought, “I am glad no one can see me.” Then I thought, “two minutes can seem like a long time…” Then the timer went off, I packed up my things, woke my daughter up and got her ready for daycare, and headed out the door. Just another day.

Except it wasn’t.

I found myself power posing in the car too. Sitting up straighter, holding my head higher. By the time I had arrived at the training institute I had decided that my daughter and I were in fact departing for Shanghai in five weeks. We just were. In other words I would stop saying we “might” depart, heavily caveated my words with the “IF I pass my language test.” Instead, I would pass my test and we would depart on time.

I posted this change to Facebook and launched my hashtag #positivityplan. Each day I have posted something fun concluding I “have awesome Chinese,” which will see me through and including my hashtag. For example, I posted the following a few days ago:

           I had a hair trim yesterday and the stylist found my first grey hair. Yikes! But with age comes wisdom, and for some, awesome Chinese. ‪#‎positivityplan‬

Also, although a month ago the FSI travel agent cautioned me that “Chinese is a difficult language and there are many who buy their tickets and have to change their travel date when they do not pass the first test…” I purchased my mother’s plane ticket. I made reservations for the cats to travel. I paid the difference for my daughter’s and my tickets so we could fly our preferred airline and the State Department would go ahead and pay the rest, this securing our tickets. I am moving forward because this is going to happen.

I expect this may all sound hokey to some. I wish I could say I am now 100% positive I will pass my exam and I am no longer nervous, but that would be an outright lie. Just tonight I started to again have some fairly strong doubts. I have what it takes to pass and I hope my positivity campaign pays off to help mitigate the nerves and demonstrate what I need to in order to pass. After all, I have awesome Chinese.



The Last Oil Change

My love affair with my Honda Civic is about to come to a screeching halt. China is coming between us.

This week I had the oil in my car changed, for what is likely the last time. At least it will be the last time for me and this car. It could also be quite some time before I take another car in for an oil change. I am not even sure when I will next have a car.

I feel really torn. The Honda is only the second car I have ever owned. For most of my Foreign Service career I have had this car as I bought it primarily because I would be heading to a Mexico border post. I also bought it because I was pregnant and becoming ever more so and the logistics of getting myself to and from my doctor’s appointments without a car presented a challenge. (The one time I walked from the Foreign Service Institute to my OB-GYN’s office 2.5 miles away at the Virginia Hospital Center while experiencing “morning sickness” was a wake-up call)

So I have driven this car to and from Mexico – 2,000 miles each way – and traveling to/through twelve U.S. states. This is the car I brought C home from the hospital in. The car she has thrown up in several times… on the way back from Fort Davis, Texas, on the way to Santa Fe, New Mexico, once while waiting on the bridge to return to Mexico, and once while I was taking her to the pediatrician in El Paso. (Do not tell CarMax).

I have enjoyed the freedom of getting behind the wheel of my own car. So much so that although I dislike the time suck of my current 50 minute one-way commute, I do not mind the drive.

Most of my adult life has been spent without my own car. While living in Decatur (Georgia), Beijing, Seoul, Manila, rural western Japan, Singapore, Jakarta, Honolulu, Monterey (California), Hyattsville (Maryland), and Washington, D.C. I had no car (though in the spirit of full disclosure I did have a motorbike my last two years in Japan). I had to figure how to get around without my own wheels by train, bus, taxi, subway, a car sharing network, bicycle, my own two feet… Sometimes it was annoying, sometimes it took a tremendous amount of time, but it was almost always an adventure.

Therefore a part of me quite excited to get back to living without my own car. Most certainly I will be happy to say goodbye to the costs and responsibility of owning a vehicle. Goodbye to car insurance, registration, taxes, parking, toll, gas, upkeep and so on and so forth. Including my monthly car payment, I figure that selling my car rather than taking it to Shanghai is akin to gifting myself a $500 a month raise. Thanks me, I’ll take it!

Shanghai is a huge city of some 23 million people; I considered taking my car for approximately a nanosecond. The thought of driving a car around the city, well, it does not fill me with happy thoughts. I imagine myself hunched over my steering wheel, eyes darting right to left, wiping my brow of sweat attempting to navigate the streets with signs and traffic laws I do not understand. Power to those people up for the challenge, but I am opting out. I know me, and subjecting C and I to that added stress is just not worth it.
This selling the car and adjusting to life again without one is but a small part of this whole adventure. It just feels like a big thing right now.

Less than seven weeks to go.