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Saturday, May 18, 2013

Now cometh crunch time

I passed by this kiddie train while walking home (yes, walking - more on that later) this afternoon from FSI. I have no idea if it runs during the summer season, or whether it has permanently ceased operations.

In less than a week I'll be taking my final Mandarin Chinese exam. Finally. I've already had the test postponed twice - once back in February, when the language section decided that my progress has been too slow and therefore more time was required; and then in early April, thanks to the surgery I had done on my left knee, getting a ligament reattached to prevent the knee from continuing its annoying habit of wanting to pop out of its socket. Am I ready? Yes. And no.

This covered section of the above-mentioned kiddie train line resembles Noah's Ark. It might be because the small park where it's located is next door to a Vietnamese Methodist Church. Then again, it might not be.

I'm ready, in the sense that I'm anxious to get out of here and be on our way to Shanghai 上海, so I can finally get a start on my new career. There's nothing wrong with living in the Falls Church/Arlington/Alexandria, Virginia area, but it's been almost a year of doing nothing but sitting in classrooms and trying to absorb way too much information. It's time to move on.

Be bewwy, bewwy quiet. Wabbits are bewwy abwundant in this area.

No, I'm not ready, in the sense that I still don't feel confident that I'll pass. I don't know what it is - I've been struggling with Mandarin here since September, but of course it goes back much, much further than that. After all those years living in a Mandarin-speaking environment in Taiwan, the only language that I saw significant improvement in was Japanese. I could make excuses (true excuses, but excuses nonetheless) that those many humiliating experiences I had in Taiwan have resulted in some kind of mental block preventing me from enjoying conversing in Chinese, but that doesn't change the fact that I need to do well enough on the test next week to get off of language probation and be on our to China.

A small shopping center I passed as I was walking home. I stopped in at the Fiesta Oriental Store to buy a Gatorade. Perhaps my true path lies in the field of suburban planning instead of diplomacy, international relations or language teaching. If it was up to me, I would break the endless tracts of houses that mark American suburbia by including numerous small clusters of shops that would serve the surrounding neighborhoods and perhaps encourage people to walk or ride a bike to their local grocer etc., instead of having to drive.

It's safe to say I'm suffering from some serious exam anxiety. If I may rant, the way languages are taught at FSI remind of Taiwanese driving schools - at the latter, students aren't taught how to drive, they only learn what is needed to pass the unrealistic driving tests and thus get their driver's licenses (and then go out and kill themselves, and others, on the road). As for the exams themselves, they're structured more for political, economic or public diplomacy officers. I'm going to be a consular officer, where the biggest part of my job will be interviewing Chinese applicants and determining whether or not they're eligible for American visas. The test, however, will be asking me to give reports in Mandarin on topics such as gun control, nuclear weapons proliferation, human rights and so on. Which is most unfortunate because I actually didn't do too badly in the few consular classes I had in the Mandarin program. 

A classic American car. Which classic American car it actually is, however, I haven't a clue. UPDATE: Thanks to my old friend Rich, who is much wiser than me in the way of the automobile, I now know that this is a 1959 Cadillac. 

What also has me worried is the impression I have from prior experience that the exams are set up to reward those Type-A personalities who relish opportunities to express themselves. Then there is the fact that, in the Asian section at least, there is the perception among the testers (who are all native speakers of the languages) that Americans are (and should be) direct, frank and opinionated, so people like me have two strikes against us already. Despite answering everything clearly and correctly during my Japanese exam, I was told that, even though my score was on the borderline for passing, my answers were "too short". What they were really saying was that my responses weren't American enough. 

One nice thing about living in this area is the abundance of parkland and the number of cycling and walking trails crisscrossing the region. 

All excuses and frustrations aside, I've got to pass next week. While there would be advantages in having our time here extended again (such as in letting Amber finish out the school year), as I've already written, it's time to move on. So wish me 加油, and hopefully I can put up enough of a false front of good old-fashioned American self-confidence to squeak through and thus move on.

This stone, with the word "Amor" chiseled on it, is part of an art installation called "Named Stones", by one J.W. Mahoney. Eight inscribed rocks were installed in 1989 as part of an outdoor sculpture exhibition (one stone has since gone missing). According to the plaque, "Mahoney draws upon the Japanese Shintu (sic) tradition of naming natural objects in order to distinguish the special qualities of each and to encourage quiet contemplation". Shintu? 

Today a field trip to the Voice of America's Chinese section was scheduled for this afternoon, but I skipped it to work on those dreaded mini-reports 小报告. Then, because it was such a beautiful afternoon, I decided to give my surgically-repaired knee a good workout by eschewing the shuttle bus, and walking home instead, following the W & OD Trail much of the way.

In addition to rabbits, I saw lots of birds, chipmunks and squirrels, plus the occasional duck.

It was nice to be outdoors, but the approximately four miles (6.4 kilometers) I walked today was probably overdoing it. Granted, I stopped to take lots of photos, but it still took almost two hours to complete a trip that only required about 70 minutes to do pre-surgery. My knee was definitely feeling the effects when I reached our apartment.

Spring is in the air, and everything is a lovely shade of green. You wouldn't know it from the picture, but Interstate 66 is just a stone's throw away to the right of this photo. 

Still, my knee has made remarkable progress since my operation at the beginning of April. I just wish the same could be said of my Mandarin-speaking abilities.

This section of forest was a reminder that, for the time being at least, I'd better stick to flat, paved surfaces. Rough sections of trail are still to be approached gingerly.


  1. Dude! That's a 1959 Cadillac! My dad used to have a '62 version. Smaller fins on the '62.

    Good luck with the exam and glad to hear the knee is doing well!

    1. I thought it might've been a Cadillac, but that's only because I assume that any car with tail fins must be a Caddy.

      If I somehow pass the test, I'll get in touch with you about meeting up in Davis early next month.

  2. Sounds good. If it helps with the test, just think about all the hundreds of tests you passed successfully in college. You're a trained, expert test taker!