December 17th, 2004 (9:47am Pacific Time)
I have been in the US for about 10 days now, but it actually feels a lot longer. I think the concept of time for people is generally associated with the amount of different things one experienced rather than the actual amount of time passed. Isn't this why adults always feel that their life slips by their fingers at a tremendous speed compared to childhood? I suppose that for a child, everything is new. I cannot imagie how horribly would a life in a cube-farm do to the chronological perception of even the best of minds.
For that, the last 10 days felt like a month or more. After arriving in CA, I took a weekend and went to NY and went through about what felt like a week of activities in just one day - after that I am in Folsom, CA this week as a precursor to some onsite support project that will begin soon. Prior to coming here, of course, I had my Japanese Language Skills Exam the day before my flight to the US.
I was hoping to jot down some details of the test before the memory thereof totally fade into oblivion.
The way I studied for the test was a little more than unorthodox. I _planned_ to sit down the night before and read some grammar notes (my weak point), in the hope that i would remember at least a few of them the day after, but instead the "oh just one more" mentality set in after popping in the Fullmetal Alchemist DVD and i watched that nonstop for maybe 8 hours - from 10pm Saturday (this would be the 4th of december) to 6am Sunday - i.e. right up to the morning of the test.
The test was scheduled to begin at 9:45am (i think), and it was located in Saitama University in Urawa. The plan was to start scooting over at about 8:00am, get there around 8:30 under the naive assumption that there are not so much sunday morning traffic, and start taking the test without sparing a single minute in the whole "studying" thing. But as fate would have it, the assumption about sunday morning traffic is an incredibly naive one after all.
Skipping the details of anxiously stuck in traffic, I get there around 9:30 but notices that there are still legions of students flooding into the school much like a typical weekday morning. (On that point if everyone was wearing uniforms it would look a lot like Sanyo on a typical morning) I was very surprised by the lack of punctuality of all the students - The thought did pass through my mind that since the majority of the test takers are chinese + koreans, that maybe the test administrators planned to start the test late intentionally.
I got to my classroom with about 2.8 minutes to spare, and the room was at most quarter full. It turns out that due to strong winds, one of the JR trains from utsunomiya (i think) was delayed, and a decision had been made to push back the test start time by an hour.
I suppose part of the problem was that this location handled students from a huge area, encompassing all of northern Saitama and at least extending into Gunma prefecture - unsurprising if it was responsible for the foreigner population in Tochigi prefecture to the east as well. I do not think it went so far as Ota, as there were very few people of Brazillian descent there, but then again, maybe they simply don't bother with taking such tests.
I was not too sure if I should feel that there are many or few foreigners taking the test - while numerically speaking (about 3000) it is an incredible sight as buses come packed to the brim and leave empty one by one, but this is just one test location responsible for a huge area. As I was made to understand, within Tokyo several such test stations must be secured to accomodate the test praticipants in just the city itself. It is no wonder that it seems that in Shinjyuku everywhere I turn I would bump into some foreigners.
The classrooms had many rows of tables, the last 1/3 or so was on a weak incline. there were four columns and each seat two people, added with around 30 rows of tables, the entire classroom, no bigger than two of your typical US elementary school classrooms, have the theoretical capacity fit some 300 plus students. The hallways is way too thin for such a number of people, and we pushed and shoved around to get to our classroom to which we are assigned. Each seat is numbered with a serial number that corresponds with the examinee's number on the little test voucher he received. After you find your seat, you can sit and wait for the test to begin.
A curiosity, or certainly a warning to any test taker, is that the bathroom line, especially the female one, becomes very long during any kind of breaks. In fact, I don't quite believe "very" describes it well because it would conjure up the imagination of a line maybe 20-30 people in length. In reality it's more like a wait for a popular ride in an amusement park, where the line folds back onto itself several times to accomodate the sheer amount of people. Just about everybody in the line has a terribly grumpy face - that of a person longing for immediate gratification but is denied almost indefinitely. The guys' side sometimes got a little line going too, but nothing like the monstrosity for the fairer sex. The best advice is probably to go before you come to the test and drink as little as you can. While mild dehydration may not be beneficial for the test score, I somehow feels that bloated and waiting for a prolonged period of time would do much worse.
The test itself, when started, was kept on schedule. The broadcasts were a played tape insntead of by individual and to ensure nothing goes wrong there were multiple audio tests beforehand. A person per column distributes the answer sheet and the test booklet for each student and collects them similarly. You cannot open your test booklet, but it was so thin that if you flip it over you can read the last few questions. Not that it helps or anything (especially since you have to figure out blurry gana+kanji written backwards.
The test was broken into three parts. The first was Vocabulary, Second is Listening Comprehension, and third Reading and Grammar. At the beginning I thought grammar would be combined with vocabulary; I didn't think the section was too bad, and the Listening comprehension was just a tad easier than I expected (though not as easy as I had hoped), but in any case by lunch I actually got quite a good feeling that I might actually pass this test because I know I don't usually do too terribly in reading.
Just then, I get the last test and over half of it was grammar.
It was so difficult for me that I did not even have time to finish it and penciled in half a dozen questions in a simple mechanical fashion. To be honest I did not know how to properly answer a single one of the 36 questions, with only two that I was somewhat partially sure of. The only thing I could have hoped for was to eliminate as much of each question as possible so the random choice left behind would be higher than 25%. It was a sad state of affairs, and no matter what happens, it would be impossible for my other scores to be high enough to compensate for the terrible mess that is in this last section.
Depressed, I finished the test and with "this exam is now over" message left the room, into the crowded halls outside and flowed in the great river of people, over 50% chatting on cellphones in chinese complaining about the test, out to the open grounds where the sun almost set. A bit sad, actually - the last day in Japan for quite a while was passed by doing something and with so little results. But to be truthful, I don't think it would be fair for those who put in so much effort for their exams if I was lucky enough to pass.
Just one mention - all the announcements during the test were in Japanese, I suppose that for level 1, they sort of expect that you already have the basic ability to understand test directions. Maybe you can even think of it as an unplanned listening test of sorts.
The last great spectical for the day was the ultimate line of students waiting for the bus to go home. Buses simply do not come enough for the huge outflux of students and the line stretched several hundred meters long. I think the most unfortunate are the level 1 test takers - as our test was the longest, we are stuck at the end of the line. I rounded up two of my friends who were also taking the test on the same day, and we went to Red Lobster for a quick bite (the food was sold out completely during lunch, and I did not even have breakfast), and by the time we got back about an hour and half later, there was still the same line left, about two buses worth of students waiting, some shivering in the chilly evening wind.
The results are out Feburary. I guess that's also a kind of "welcome back" thing I should look forward to when I return to Japan.