Holy Chicken and Broccoli, Is My Test THIS Week?

Countdown: Less than two weeks until departure. Whoa, how did that happen? How did 19 weeks of training get past me? The Chinese test is the end of this week.

If all goes well, then yes, I will be departing on time. I know, saying “if” in the same breath as my Chinese test is against my Positivity Plan Code of Conduct. I am supposed to say, “After I pass my test this Friday,” or “When I totally ROCK my Chinese test on Friday…” and so on and so forth.

I am trying. I continue to say positive things to myself every day. Things such as “我是一个汉语的女王” or “I am a Chinese [language] queen.” I repeat that kind of thing to myself in the car. And power pose.

I am really starting to believe my amazing Chinese teachers are going to pull this off (with my help of course), that I will blow away the testers and that the recording of my test will be used for years to come as an example of how someone with AWESOME Chinese takes the end of training test.

That does not mean I will not be bringing all my various talismans. I am not really a superstitious person. I do the “knock on wood” or “knock on [insert random material, like plastic, here]” on occasions, but that is it. This is except, of course, when I am in an FSI exam. Then I am armed to the teeth. I will wear my positive mantra bracelets, carry my daughter’s smiling daycare center photo, and even bring in a ridiculously cute string doll that purports to help the owner “kick start your life, give you courage and confidence to get things done.” I am sure it was marketed for teenage girls, but I do not care. Whatever works, right? If I had lucky undies and a bullet proof amulet, I would wear those too.

This however has been my best training week yet. I do not have to do much homework to prep for class because my reading class is “cold” reading (first time seeing the material) and my speaking class is “impromptu” discussion of topics or presentations with very little prep time – all of which simulate the test. Previously, I felt so frustrated in class after spending hours studying and still not understanding SO much. Now, I feel elated because I understand SO much without needing much preparation time.

This week I have been thinking of my language test as a half marathon. (of course, what is a runner supposed to do?) Generally, I take between 2 hours and 15 minutes and 2 hours and a half to complete a half marathon. The language test also takes roughly the same amount of time. Running a half marathon is exhausting. So is sitting in a room having a conversation or reading an authentic three to four paragraph news article in a foreign language in which you are not fluent, especially if you are being graded on that language. Also, if your language test happens at lunch time, but that is whole other issue.

In the months leading up to a half marathon, I do a lot of training. Some days I have great runs. Some days I have terrible runs. Sometimes I cannot drag myself out to run at all. But over the course of the three to six months, my long runs get longer, I grow stronger, and I am better prepared for the big day. Still, on race day I never really know how it might go. I could wake up feeling off. A few miles in I might feel an odd twinge in my knee, which may or may not cause me problems. I may need to walk through the water stops to give myself just the break I need to push through.

I think back to this fall as I dropped out of my October half marathon down to a 10K and then later dropped 10Ks to 5Ks. I thought I was out of training. But I have been training for another kind of half – my language test. Nineteen weeks of training in fact. As I sit down to begin my test, I will neither know my outcome nor what hurdles might be thrown my way. I may need to slow down, check my pace, and correct my stride.

At the very least I want to finish strong. I want to know at the end of the test that I gave my best with whatever I was given. Even better if I hit a PR (scoring above the required language score can result in incentive bonus pay), though that would just be icing on the cake, not a goal.

There are no medals at the end of this race, just plane tickets and a new position waiting in Shanghai.

Race Day: Friday, high noon.

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.


Learning Chinese and a Poopie Diaper

I have been struggling with how to portray how I feel about my return to the Foreign Language Institute for training to top up my very stale Mandarin Chinese. Perhaps my most difficult issue was how to explain how hard this has been for me without sounding like a majorly sad grump. Because I will tell you, I have had some majorly sad and grumpy days.

For example, I had my first tear-stained breakdown. Yep, it happened. Thankfully it did not occur in front of any of my colleagues but rather in front of a member of the Chinese Department staff as I tried to explain my very real fears that I will not pass the Chinese test in January. She was very kind and told me not to worry, which only made me suspect she has no idea how badly I speak Chinese.

I also threw a pen in class. I am not proud of it. I could not help but think later that it while it was probably too mild a throw to make it in to some kind of “Diplomats Behaving Badly” montage, it most certainly was not one of my finer moments. I certainly did not make a conscious decision to throw the pen but after feeling browbeaten to create one too many a Chinese sentence in a grammatical structure I simply did not understand with a limited vocabulary of half-remembered words and phrases learned as recently as 2002…and then having the teacher cut me off two words into my response, I had had it. And the pen launch sequence commenced.

One of my biggest struggles has been finding a time to study. I tried studying in the evenings as C watched a DVD and then after she went to bed. Firstly, you parents out there must be laughing your socks off imagining me trying to study with a toddler in the room. Yeah, it went about as well as you imagine. “Mommy, change DVD, change DVD, change DVD.” “Mommy, snack, snack, snack!” “Mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy…” Secondly, my attempts at raising a jet setting night owl toddler have been too successful and I was too tired to do anything after she went to bed because it was also my bedtime.

Then I decided to wake up early in the morning, around 5 am, study until C woke up around 7:30, take her to child care and then drive on to the training institute for a little more study until class began at 10:40. Except on day one of this brilliant plan I woke up at 5:30 and I heard the sweet little call of “mommy?” at six.


Plan #3 has been to wake up at 5:30, get C to daycare by 6:45, drive to the training institute, arriving around 7:35, then studying in the cafeteria until class at 10:40. I study again for at least an hour in between my morning class and afternoon class. I also listen to Chinese in the car either to or from the training institute. I downloaded some popular Chinese songs and language learning podcasts, burned the textbook and other dialogues to disc, and purchased the soundtrack to Frozen in Mandarin. We are expected at the very least to study for 8 hours a day including our 5 hours of classroom time. This schedule means I can generally manage to get those three extra hours in. This has been mildly successful, at least in relative terms.

Yet every single day I eat a huge helping of humble pie in class and continue to harbor serious doubts about my readiness to test in January.

This morning I set about to take C to swimming class (I have at least followed through with this ONE thing from my “back in the U.S. to-do list”). I got myself dressed and her dressed. I took us out to the car and buckled C into the car seat.

Then I realized I had forgotten my towel.

[Note: I did not bring towels the first day of swim class because I expected, for some reason, they would be provided, and had to run into the nearby supermarket to buy a set of hand towels. I felt like schmuck.]

So I unbuckled C from the car seat and walked back to the apartment to get the towel and then returned to the car and buckled her back in. Only to realize I had forgotten a spare diaper.

So I unbuckled C from the car seat and walked back to the apartment to get the extra diaper and then returned to the car and began to buckle her back in. Then I smelled something unfortunate. C needed a diaper change.

<sigh> I wanted to just pack it in. I wanted to just get C out of the car and give up on the swim class at least for today and maybe forever. There was even a millisecond there I considered I might never leave the apartment again. I took a deep breath and convinced myself to keep going.

So I unbuckled C from the car seat and returned to the apartment, changed her diaper, and then returned to the car and buckled her back in.

We were late for swim class.
But we still got there and were able to participate.

This week my Chinese study has been derailed several times.

Last weekend C had a fever of 102 all day Saturday and 103 most of Sunday. Instead of being a docile and very sleepy sick person she became an extremely demanding one. Not one minute of studying that weekend. <sigh>

I arranged for my parents to watch her on Monday instead of taking her to daycare, so I actually departed home at 9:20 that day, after some haphazard studying in the apartment that morning. <sigh>

Early Wednesday morning, C woke up and demanded food. I mean she literally sat bolt upright in bed at the witching hour of 3:40 am and said “FOOD!” and would not go back to sleep until she had had some “Dora snacks” and a juice. So I let her sleep in a little and departed for daycare at 8 am. Then on the way to the daycare center that morning the low air light came on for my tires. I stopped to have them checked and every single one of them was low. <sigh>

On Thursday C woke up in the middle of the night upset, the fever was back. I gave her medicine but could not get back to sleep as I had developed a terrible stomach ache. So I called in sick and took C to the doctor. I imagined I might get a little studying done but again C would not nap, was extremely demanding, and, as an extra fun bonus, shoved an edamame bean up her nose in the afternoon. <sigh>

Right now I am feeling the best I have about Chinese in the four weeks I have been studying. I have no idea why.

On the drive back from swimming class today I thought the whole episode summed up how I feel I prepare for Chinese every day – shit happens but I AM trying.

That’s all I can do.