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