Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Strangeness Afoot and a Special Kind of Pie

Last night I decided to take a nap around 10.30. I planned to awaken around 11 so I could call Andrew on Skype. At 10.58, however, someone came banging on my door, jolting me awake. I had already had this happen four times earlier in the day with people looking for others on the floor who I don’t know yet. I was groggy and consequently terrified of the sound, so I got out of bed and answered the door.

A man dressed like a worker from downstairs came right and started messing with my television. Granted, the television hasn’t been working, but 11pm is an odd time to fix it, and on top of it all, I didn’t request maintenance. I was really confused. I started trying to figure out what was going on in broken Chinese. “Uh, excuse me, what are you doing here? And where did that remote control come from?” I asked. He replied with something generally related to the television. I could have gathered that without his mumbled Beijing accent.

He turned the television on and kept hitting buttons on the remote, but nothing was happening. Now, I’m no television or cable repair person, but I could tell you that the reason nothing was happening was the disconnected coaxial cable. It was lying on the floor next to the television stand. I plugged it in, attempting to be helpful, and the cable came on and he started yelling something about how the television works now. “Great,” I thought, “the remote makes the television work. Problem solved. That was fast.”

However, it was not fast. Instead of leaving, he sat down on my roommate’s bed. I still hadn’t seen my roommate since her initial ten-minute visit. “Okay, you owe 100 kuai,” he said. Confused, I inquired as to why. He said that the remote control cost 100 kuai. I told him that I didn’t even want television, so he could keep it. He said no.

“I don’t know what you want me to do, then. I’m not paying you for this. I didn’t ask anyone to come here to do anything about the television. I don’t care about television. You can take it away if you want,” I said.

He told me that my roommate wanted it fixed. I told him that I hadn’t seen my roommate for more than ten minutes and that I didn’t even know if she was still living here. “So, if she wants television, she can pay for it. If she wants it when she gets back, I’ll send her down to the office to get you.”

“Okay, 100 kuai,” he said.

“No. I’m not paying you. I don’t have any money. I don’t watch T.V. And in fact, I was sleeping when you came and banged on my door, so you can go back to the office, and I’m going to go back to sleep. If I need television, I’ll come down to order it when I’m more awake. Okay?”

Instead of leaving, he decided to correct my colloquial speech for saying that I don’t like television. Normally I would welcome corrections, but not from some creepy man who showed up in my room at 11pm out of nowhere. I started considering the various objects I could throw at him to get him to leave. I already had told him several times to go back to the office. I was polite the first few times, but I was getting very frustrated not being able to think clearly in Chinese, and I knew he knew what I was saying on top of it all. He just wouldn’t leave. If people aren’t going to take a hint, and not take a polite request to leave, then I’m not going to be polite anymore. He was being aggravating on purpose.

“Look, I have to go to sleep. I have a huge test in the morning, and I don’t want to fail it. So please leave. If I need T.V., I’ll let you know.”

“Okay, you don’t have to pay.”

“You’re right I don’t have to pay. I have to go to sleep! Please go!!”

“Okay, okay. You don’t have to pay.”


Finally he smiled, shook his head, told me to have a goodnight, and left. He understood everything I was saying. I wasn’t speaking incorrectly. I wasn’t communicating poorly. He was antagonizing me for no reason, and that was confirmed by how he left. He spent 12 minutes sitting on my roommate’s bed, screwing with my sense of correct speaking. I told a few friends about this today, and it struck all of them the wrong way. They told me to come to their rooms if that happens again. Luckily, I think my roommate will be living here now, so there will be two of us to beat him up if he comes back.

Let me be clear, however - I didn’t feel threatened at all by what happened. This was just a very frustrating experience, and I don’t think he belonged here that late. When I get my living certificate from downstairs in a few minutes, I’m going to tell the people at the desk what happened and see what they say. I hope I can communicate this clearly. If they’re unhelpful, I might go talk to a guard in the security office. I just want to be sure that there isn’t something I need to be worried about.

So that experience was one blow to my Chinese skills. The second arrived today when I had to take the HSK. I thought I was just going to take a short placement test this morning at 8.20. I couldn’t find breakfast beforehand, but I didn’t think that was going to be a big deal. When they passed out the tests, however, I soon found out that I was in for a standardized test in Mandarin. I’ll say that I was less than excited and leave it at that.

The test was 145 minutes long and was comprised of four sections. The first was listening, the second was grammar, the third was reading comprehension, and the fourth was vocabulary and writing. The recorded instructions for the listening section were crystal clear and repeated by three different people. When the test began, however, there was a collective gasp amongst the test-takers.

To get an idea of the recording quality of the listening section, I’d like you to place both hands over your mouth and mumble what you think Russian, or some other language you don’t know, sounds like. It was absolutely awful. And of course, nothing was repeated. We got one shot at every question, and no one could understand a word. I know this was the case because of how many anxiety-stricken voices I heard talking about how in other countries our test results would have been nullified for such a scandal of a recording job.

It was bad. Every section got harder than the last, and some people just left. I saw 20-30 people leave after the second section, and another 30-40 leave halfway through the third section. It was so hard. I’m going to place into the lowest level possible. I had no idea what was going on. I could read the passages in the comprehension section and get a general idea of what was happening, but there were characters that I just didn’t know yet that completely interfered with my understanding. Then I couldn’t answer the questions because they had 3-4 characters that I didn’t know. I could read the multiple choice answers just fine, but I didn’t know what I needed to answer. I don’t know if this test is representative of what I know or not.

So I was seriously humbled in a matter of 14 hours. I didn’t think I was being arrogant about my successes here so far, but apparently the universe did. That test was so demoralizing. I’m not going to worry about it, though. From what I can tell, everyone is in the same boat as I am, or in one that’s sinking faster. I’ll just have to wait for the results tomorrow to find out what that is going to end up meaning for me.

Ugh, standardized tests in English are ridiculous enough. But in Chinese? Yuck.


At 8:46 AM, Anonymous Tim said...

So, let's get this straight. You've travelled halfway round the world to inflict self-abuse in a place where your cries for help may be mis-understood or mis-interpretted? You're a strange one, I'll give you that. But that's not all, you then enter an test where the examiner is not only an automaton but also only speaks Russian with a hand over it's mouth. Well, when you're qualified and earning the big bucks, you should stop off in sunny California and build your retirement home on the San Andreas faultline - that should top it off :)

Hopefully there's a few things to make you smile too. Funny [shakes head]


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