Monday, December 13, 2010

In Which the Author Recounts his Experience Taking the JLPT, and Promises Yet Again to Blog More Frequently

I have a set pattern of advice I impart on fearful Japanese people before they take standardized tests:

1. Get a good night's sleep
2. Eat a good breakfast
3. Don't be nervous

After taking the JLPT, I can now confidently add a fourth entry to this list:

4. Don't daydream before the test

I was not at all nervous before the JLPT; I actually worried more about finding the test center than about my ability to pass. I arrived on an early train and sat in the Gakuin University courtyard reading Jessie's book on hikikomori (more on this later) while crowds of East Asian students flipped through test prep books and cheerful Brazilians posed for group photos. I was the only white person in the test room, and also the oldest, the majority being Brazilian middle-school students wearing a mix of neon and black. I read, reread, and attempted to understand the hiragana instructions on the blackboard, and watched the test proctor, a nervous woman who did her best to make her Japanese easy to understand, shuffle awkwardly around the room. She was assisted by a college kid who carried in the test booklets and watched over the room without doing very much. He wore a jet-black suit with a loosely-knotted pink tie and dirty tennis shoes that betrayed an obvious unfamiliarity with the post, a welcome break from Japan's usual flawless appearance.

I had arrived just before noon, and there must have been some rule about starting the test at exactly 12:45 because the proctor spent a grueling ten minutes staring at her watch while we waited with the test booklets in front of us. I used this opportunity to think about the book I'd been reading, silently make fun of the college kid's sneakers, look forward to other weekend plans, work some transitional issues out of a story I'm writing, think about women I'd like to sleep with, and worry about whether I'd remembered to turn off my cell phone so that I was shocked into action when the proctor finally gave the signal to hajimete. It had also been so long since I'd taken a standardized test (eight years by my count) that I'd forgotten the importance of speed over thoroughness. I wasted a lot of time in the Vocabulary section mulling over pieces of sentences that had no bearing on the actual answer, and deliberated over questions whose solution I could only guess at. I was surprised when the proctor called time and collected our answer sheets: I still had two questions to go.

That turned out to be a good thing because it showed me that this test, even though it was the lowest level, was still a force to be reckoned with. Success wasn't going to come easily. I spent the remaining two sections locked in a state of intense concentration, especially during the Listening section, which required me to reorient myself to a new set of instructions every ten minutes. (The whole test, by the way, was in Japanese, with nary a hint of English to help us figure out what to do.)

Maybe that was the challenge I needed to sharpen my focus. It occurred to me during the break that I've been taking the easy route too often lately, and that having a challenge again made me feel good. And why have I been avoiding challenges the past few years? Post-college burnout? Fear of failure? Massive derailment without a set structure to guide me through life? Or is it just plain laziness?

I'm pretty confident that I went on to smoke those second two sections, but even if I don't pass, that moment of enlightenment was reward enough. With the test out of the way I've been free to get things squared away for Christmas (which gets a lot more complicated when there's excessive mail order shopping involved), and when that's finally over with, I'll be able to focus on some other writing projects, both fiction and pieces for this blog. More on those projects later, but for now, I assure you that I will be posting more often, for serious this time.

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