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.



Back to School

I am too old for this.

We are told in our language school orientation at the Foreign Service Institute NOT to think this way. We should have an open mind. We should be accepting of everyone’s learning style and pace, including our own. We are reminded this is our job right now. Not only are we being paid to learn a language but the government is investing a lot of money in us to do so. The State Department is counting on us to learn our respective languages to help the United States achieve its diplomatic goals.

But geez, I feel too old for this.

I know I am intelligent and I can do this. I have learned languages before: Spanish, Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, and Tagalog. The former three I learned over time and sporadically in long formal classes; the latter three with informal classes and living in country. And yes, you did read Chinese. So not only am I proven to learn a language but I am proven to learn THIS language.

On the first day the highlight of orientation for me was when a woman from the testing unit announced, in a hilarious and inspired presentation, that the test would henceforth be changed. No longer would we be required to speak at length on topics such as nuclear nonproliferation, Congressional term limits, or global warming and yet be unable to buy groceries or conduct visa interviews when we touchdown in our respective countries. In Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, I long waited for the when after approving or denying a visa the applicant would then turn to me and say, well, now that is done, could you tell me your thoughts on labor unions? Needless to say, that day never arrived. A collective sigh and inward cheer was palpably felt throughout the orientation room. The word is that we will actually be tested on conversations related to ourselves, life in our destination country, and our actual jobs. This is thrilling news.

The classes thus far have been great. The Chinese department has developed a class specifically geared toward those of us who have had Chinese in the past. Currently there are 14 of us in this program. I appreciate this immensely as I was in a similar situation when I studied Spanish and the department initially accommodated four of us with our own class. Then after four weeks we were scattered to the wind, placed in other classes, and any advantage we may have had was lost.

The class times fly by. When the teacher tells us to take a 10 minute break or he/she will see us next time, I am surprised. I have had just a few times in class where I felt too much on the spot, but my classmates and the teachers are supportive. Preparation is key though, and I am going to have to step things up.

I have run the gamut of language learning emotions this week. I have felt inspired and insecure. I have felt confident and uncertain. I have felt committed and flustered. I have been energized and exhausted. It has only been four days.

Lots of people would be thrilled to switch places with me; I am being paid to study a foreign language. I completely understand; it’s an incredible benefit and opportunity. I recognize that intrinsically. But studying a language is HARD y’all! I know at some point in the next 20 weeks I will cry as a result of trying to cram Mandarin into my brain, and remove the Spanish that now resides there. I may cry more than once. I am hoping to avoid doing this in front of others as it is not considered a great diplomatic skill to burst into tears.

I try to give myself a pep talk. “Look, last time you were here studying you were pregnant, had the baby, and then had a newborn. And you did it! You rock!”

“That’s all true. I do rock. Wait; now I have a toddler…I cannot see how that is going to make studying any easier.” As expected, C is already proving a formidable obstacle to my language learning.

It is very important I realize this process is not easy for anyone and that everyone has things going on in their lives while trying to study a foreign language. I remember 2-3 years ago while studying Spanish pregnant and then as a single mom of a newborn; I was SO tired. Yet one day I saw a woman, pregnant AND on crutches, studying a foreign language. And about a week later I met a woman on the shuttle bus who was pregnant, had a small child, her husband still at their previous post, AND undergoing chemotherapy, studying a foreign language. Yeah, I try to remember those women and their fortitude when I am feeling sorry for myself. I also try to remember that for everyone that was visibly struggling with something there are those struggling and juggling things not readily apparent. Just like me.

One week down, eighteen to go.* Hopefully I am not too too old for this.



*turns out unlike during my Spanish training, the Christmas week off is not being counted as part of our training time this go around. Yay!