04 December 2006

Japanese weekend

Yesterday I finally took the Nihongo Nouryoku Shiken (Japanese Language Proficiency Test, or JLPT). In Argentina, the JLPT is taken at Belgrano University in Buenos Aires, on the same day as in the rest of the world, i.e. the first Sunday of December. Waves of Japanese students come from many places in the capital on foot, by subte (metro), by bus or taxi or whatever; many nikkei join in from La Plata, where many are settled (they even have a Japanese-language newspaper called La Plata Hochi); and of course, many others travel for hours during the previous night. Rosario Nihongo Gakkou dispatched a busload -- 23 students, including yours truly, two teachers, and one grandma.

I got up at 3 AM so I could gain some degree of composure, ate a half-breakfast (bad idea), and waited for a taxi. We left Gakkou at about 5 AM in our hired bus. I find it extremely difficult to sleep in any place other than a proper bed, preferably mine, so despite the convenience of having proper rest before an exam, I didn't even try. Fortunately there were other similarly afflicted or nervous students; while most dozed off into oblivion, four of us practised with kanji cards, discussed some grammar doubts, and after the sun came out and study was over, we played truco and a couple of other games, and drank some truly horrible ersatz coffee from the machine in the bus while lamenting the lack of a hot water thermos and a mate.

The driver was incredibly slow and didn't quite know how to get into Belgrano. I'm completely clueless when it comes to navigating the oversized metropolis that is Argentina's capital, but then I'm not for hire to do that. We got off the bus with just enough time to run for a gas station bar and get some coffee. Then we went back to Belgrano University, where a Japanese guy with a megaphone was herding the students into their appointed exam rooms, divided in groups according to their exam level and so they could fit into the elevators (Belgrano Uni has several space-age elevators that fit 36 people each, and within which Newton's laws seem to be nullified -- you almost don't feel any acceleration).

In we went, and into our room, where a teacher started to explain the procedures in quick Japanese, then paused, and asked if it was OK or we preferred Spanish (needless to say nobody dared ask for that). First part of the exam -- writing and vocabulary, 35 minutes. Break for lunch, and then back to the second part, which strikes fear into all students -- listening comprehension, 35 minutes. Short break, then the last part -- grammar and text comprehension, 70 minutes. A one-page-long text in Japanese can be a horrific sight, even if you're a step from mid-level proficiency and you've studied for it; as it happens, every language has its quirks, and Japanese is full of elliptical and illogical constructions (as in "It's OK" sometimes meaning "No"). Add to that your nervousness and the writing -- since this was to test your comprehension, it was written mostly in the phonetic syllabary (kana) rather than in kanji, which paradoxically makes it difficult to read quickly, since kanji are much more immediately recognizable, provided you are familiar with one or two hundred common ones. The usual mixed kanji-kana text also makes it easier to spot word breaks.

All in all, except for the audio part, I can't complain; I'm sure I did well. Now I have to wait until March to get the score. This was sankyuu (level 3); it wasn't much more difficult than the yonkyuu I took in 2005. Nikyuu (level 2) is not nearly as light, and might take me two or three years to prepare for it; one incentive is that the 5 top scores get a free trip to Japan. Only a handful of people take ikkyuu (level 1), and by then you're, according to one my classmates, "a Super Saiyajin of Japanese" (even native speakers sometimes fail ikkyuu, I'm told).

We headed back but, at some point, a group of students complained they hadn't been able to get lunch because they were too nervous... so we absolutely needed to stop (and make everybody late). The driver took 15 minutes to get off the highway into Campana, some 75 km from Buenos Aires City, a lovely place with a landscape full of petrochemical factories, and then left us before a McDonalds', which is the closest to "food" you can get when you're on the road on a Sunday afternoon. For a fast food place, it took ages for the girls to be served, and they in turn took almost one hour to eat a hamburger. Back in the road, me very pissed off, and my seat neighbour and I embarked in a heated discussion about Aldous Huxley's use of entheogens, the cultural assumptions of Native Americans, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, planified economies, the practical application of Marxism, and a project I'd heard about to replace arbitrary currency units with valuables backed up by actual energy production. I don't usually get into that sort of arguments before the first bottle of beer, so I guess I was very bored.

I got back home by 10 PM and into bed by 11 PM; I got up today at 5:30 AM and I'm trying to stay awake right now. But it was fun.

1 comment:

  1. Wish you all the best in scoring a trip to Japan to find out that the word "no" is almost never uttered. The closest one gets is usually a slow and dramatic shake of the head and some "shii" sound made by inhaling air through gritted teeth...


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