This week I had the unmitigated pleasure of taking my first test in a foreign country. Frankly, leading up to this week of finals, I felt a good deal of apprehension and uncertainty. Apprehension over the looming exams and uncertainty over what exactly would be on the exams. Some of those fears were justified and others diminished when exam day came.
On Monday, I had two exams: General Chinese and Listening. Listening was a bear. I’m pretty good at hearing the right sounds, but when you have to choose between four different tones and that sneaky neutral tone, it becomes more complicated. Either my ears are not properly attuned or I’m becoming deaf, because for half of the characters, I said the sound was going up or down when it was the opposite. Then, at the end of the exam, my teacher threw in a listening comprehension section where you listen to dialogue and choose a correct answer from multiple choice. When you only partially understand the dialogue, it’s kind of hard to guess the right answer. 25% chance of getting it right. 75% chance of getting it wrong. Unfortunately I largely chose the latter over the former.
General Chinese had its own challenges. Prior to the exam, I reviewed over 500 Chinese characters, 25 grammar lessons, and over 100 dialogue sections. It’s usually not a good sign if your brain aches just in preparation for the exam. I think mine will go into hibernation after the finals. On Monday, the exam proved to be as difficult as I imagined. About 8 pages of material: converting Pinyin into Chinese characters and vice versa, constructing sentences, fixing grammatically incorrect sentences, inserting classifiers into a sentence, placing parts of speech in a sentence, and 4 reading comprehension sections. After completing the exam (2+ hours), my brain had reached such a critical state that I believe translating one more Chinese character would have caused a catastrophic cranial dispersion. In other words, my head would have exploded. Thankfully it didn’t. But then that meant I would have to see the grades later. Ah, poor me.
On Tuesday, I was expecting the Speaking final to be the most difficult. My classmates had told me that we would have to individually speak with our teacher in Chinese for several minutes. So quite naturally, I was particularly dreading this exam. To my surprise, we were given a series of dialogues on a printed piece of paper, which we then individually recited to our teacher. Thankfully I didn’t go first, which gave me some time to write out the whole dialogue in Pinyin. After my 5-minute recitation, I had completed the Speaking final. No sweat. And that concluded my week of finals.
To celebrate the end of our first semester, we all went to Big Pizza (the Chinese version of an American pizza buffet) where I joyously feasted with my other classmates. Sadly, our Italian classmate will be in another province next semester, and some of the Russians will travel back to Russia soon. But at least some of my Russian friends will hang around for the Chinese New Year break. We’ll have to have a grand fireworks show ourselves for the Chinese New Year celebration. No lame, fizzly sparklers or half-rate, little popper firecrackers, we’re going for the massive, booming ones. Yes, it will be a joyous, deafening New Year.
After playing pool with Irving, my Chinese friend, in a Chinese pool lounge of sorts, I headed back for Huangdao on Bus 4. It feels good, knowing I won’t have to take that bus again for two months. Even better, I won’t have to brave the blustery, bone-chilling weather as I wait at the bus station and feel the onset of frostbite nibbling at my fingers and toes. At least I don’t live in Haerbin, where average temperatures in the winter fluctuate between -20C and -30C. If I lived there, I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have to visit the Ice Festival since I would be the highlight of the night as Cryogenic Man.
With just three days left until Christmas, the shopping malls are wholeheartedly into the holiday season. “Jingle Bells” in Chinese is blaring through the speakers, the cashiers are touting red outfits and Santa hats, myriads of fake Christmas trees are covered with ornaments and streamers, and cheap Christmas decoration sites are sprouting everywhere. Oddly enough, most Chinese don’t celebrate Christmas at all. Hence, the whole Christmas frenzy seems a bit odd; maybe it’s just a marketing scheme to lure shoppers with good deals prior to the Chinese New Year. Whatever it is, it seems to work.
As an expat this year, Christmas will be different, but I am thankful I can still celebrate it with some friends in Huangdao. It has and continues to be one of my favorite times of the year. No more school. A respite from work. Peaceful Christmas tunes. Time with friends and family. And of course, lots and lots of gifts. Ok, I’m not that greedy. Actually, I think I enjoy giving them rather than receiving, at times. Indisputably, the greatest gift of the season is God sending his Son, Jesus, as a frail human child to redeem mankind and offer life to all who desire it. The Creator who became one of the created to save his undeserving, rebellious creation. You can’t beat that gift.