Studying for the HSK


Taxi drivers are easily impressed. Servers less so. But no matter how many times I hear “Your Chinese is so good!” I know it’s not true. In fact, it loses meaning the more I hear it.

I’ve been in China almost six years. I bought textbooks upon textbooks, I rote-wrote thousands of characters, begged my friends to help me study, listened to all the free ChinesePod podcasts I could get my digital hands on, emptied out my flashcards, and read three whole children’s books. But I’ve been in a bit of a slump lately. Really, my Chinese should be better by now.

Shoulda listened to that advice years ago to ditch all my expat friends and only hang out with Chinese. Me and my English-bubble lifestyle~

(If I do say so myself, I still think my writing is not bad for a foreigner. I’ve been told my handwriting is like a child’s, but that’s still better than most foreigner’s even the ones who are totally fluent and literate. This is because I studied Japanese in high school and college and at least I got that headstart, although besides kanji the languages are quite different. One day I’ll blog about survival-Japanese while wandering Tokyo…)

I have no natural ability at language—just as I have no natural ability at writing. Simply gotta work hard at it, long as it takes. Can’t blame it on my Anglosphere background either; my overachieving younger sister speaks four languages totally fluently. You’d think I’d have the language gene but I don’t. And I didn’t study Chinese young, the first of it was reading a phrasebook on the plane ride over to learn pinyin basics. I moved here when I was 26, mostly a fully-formed grownup (mostly but not completely), isn’t that relatively old in learning-new-languages age?

So, for years I’ve been able to go shopping and order what I like to eat from menus and travel by myself and ask for directions and yell at taxi drivers and tell kids to be quiet and introduce myself, and of course ask where the toilet is. It’s no longer enough.

I need more. I need something that validates I learned something in my years abroad. I need something to put on my resume. I need a piece of paper.

I have since given in and been seeing a qualified Mandarin tutor for the past few months, and I plan on taking the HSK 4 test later this year. That’s ‘Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi ‘ 汉语水平考试, (四级). No pinyin, lots of listening, lots of grammar, writing, etc. I got the proper books, I meet my teacher once a week at KFC and I do my homework and now onwards and upwards. The reading is easiest. In speaking, I feel my tones are mostly okay—more or less intuitive at this stage—but I need to form longer sentences. More vocabulary. Remembering stroke order without and how to write without looking at my phone. Counters. Idioms. Again, grammar grammar grammar. The passive form 被/把 particularly confounds me. SO MUCH TO LEARN.

Wish me luck and 加油!




And finally, some handwriting


18 thoughts on “Studying for the HSK

  1. 加油加油!When will you take the exam?

    What do you find confusing about 被 and 把? 被 marks the passive (苹果被我吃掉了, the apple was eaten by me), 把introduces the object(我把苹果吃掉了I ate the apple). Well, I’m sure your tutor will explain it much better than me, haha.


  2. I’ve been having the same thoughts. I decided to take the HSK last year, but then took a Chinese job instead, which helps but doesn’t do the work for you – I spend my working hours trying to understand what people are saying, and my downtime (when I’ve got the chutzpah) trying to preemptively understand what they’ll be saying tomorrow.

    Did you go through a big selection process to find your HSK books? Any recommendations?


    • I used to by books by just browsing at bookstores, they have big shops in Shenzhen with decent selection. It can be hit or miss though, the mainland-published ones aren’t great and HK has better quality (but more expensive).

      These HSK textbooks were ordered on taobao by my teacher. I think they’re great. Use the picture above and perhaps a Chinese friend can help you get the same. However, look into and see if level 4 is or isn’t your level.


      • Given that I’m self-taught, I’m sure there’s some material at that level that I haven’t mastered yet, so I’m thinking of taking 4 first.

        Will look into the book in the picture. I’ve found that fluency in Taobao raises your quality of life almost as much as fluency in Mandarin. Just received my whiskey ice-sphere maker in the mail yesterday, set it up in the freezer during my lunch break and debauched on Bourbon promptly after work.


    • Oh, hey man! Been a while since my GZ days. Actually it was Joseph Bleazard who inspired me to study for the level 4. You’re quite good at Chinese aren’t you? I recall open mic readings all in 普通话. You must be ready for level 5 or even 6 by now…


      • Hah, open mic in 普通话 was kind of slight of hand – I’m not sure most Chinese people understood it. My Chinese learning has taken the form of a limited repertoire of functionality used with exceeding familiarity, a strategy better suited to navigating jobs and relationships than taking tests. But same as you, I need to get that score on my resume. Not at all looking forward to memorizing 成语。


  3. I need to study Chinese so bad. I’ve been here 3 1/2 years and studied Chinese for three years in college, but my proficiency is pitiful! I just don’t know when I would have the time right now. Would you recommend your tutor?


  4. I hate to break it to you but having the courage to change continent, live in a whole different coulture and attempt to write books ARE natural and useful abilities! I will wait for that japanese blogging about Tokyo while struggling with the whole kanji learning.


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