Tests Don’t Always Measure What They Seem To…10.15.10

I passed the top level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Exam last winter. It felt good to have twenty years of intentional immersion in Japan validated in this way.  The test, under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, is highly structured and authentically Japanese in its administration.  Formally dressed proctors recited rules covering everything from the size of erasers and the number of pencils allowed on the desk to how many times we would be allowed to cough before we were expelled from the test. Intended to assess general linguistic competence needed to function in Japanese society, until a few years ago it was a requirement for foreigners wishing to enter Japanese universities. Of course, passing it doesn’t mean my Japanese is perfect.  Some aspects are still startlingly weak. Recently I had one of the most humiliating language experiences in memory which I share to keep myself honest.

My husband and I needed to open a local bank account which would connect with a credit card. Tim usually takes care of banking because I dislike numbers and details, but we needed it in my name, so I went. I hummed as I rode my bicycle downtown, feeling pleased to have so many time consuming details related to our move to Tokyo accomplished.  We’d registered our new address at the city office, renewed drivers’ licenses, bought cell phones, formally greeted our new neighbors with gifts, started the kids at their new school, rented a truck and hauled all our possessions out of storage. It felt really good to be back “home” in Japan and I chuckled to myself about how easy this transition was.

The first question put to me at the bank startled me- What did I intend to use this account for? As an American, that felt like a rather private question to be asked  while still standing in the lobby. Fighting back an urge to say something sarcastic about money laundering, instead I replied it was for ordinary day-to-day household expenses. Then came the forms to fill out, and my earlier happy mood began to slip away. I could read the forms well enough, but almost every line needed some information I hadn’t brought with me or wasn’t sure how to answer.  What was the complete address and phone number of the university where I worked part time? In my work as a missionary, what was the address of my employer? Was it our home office in Chicago (which was moving to a new location that week)? Was it the local church we worked with most closely? (Coincidentally, they were also moving.) Was it the Japanese denominational office? (They weren’t moving, but of course I didn’t have that address with me.) I asked if it would be possible to take the forms home with me, but the clerk insisted I needed to fill them out there.  I began to make calls to gather the needed information.

Two hours later all the required blanks on all the pages were filled, but the clerk tactfully suggested I should rewrite the forms since there were some crossed out characters and corrections. Who knows what my problem was- maybe hunger, maybe simple carelessness.  One time, two times, three times…like a jinx, I made mistakes on characters I’d written correctly ten minutes before. The clerk audibly sucked in her breath, and her anxiety broke through the usual mask of politeness.  Each time my palms became sweatier, my muscles tenser,  and my head cloudier.  After each error, out came the ruler, the red ink pen to draw one straight horizontal line through the mistake, and our official family seal to be stamped on each layer of carbon paper on top of each mistake. At one point I fought back tears as a wave of shame and embarrassment swept over me. Two hours to open a bank account? What adult in Japan besides me would have been so stupid as to come without bringing employer addresses? Why had I been so cocky as to assume I could fill it out easily? Due to carelessness and haste, I was wasting not only my own time but also the clerk’s time. By now she had probably missed her lunch and would likely receive a scolding from her supervisor for having accomplished so little during her workday… Finally, the forms were finished, and I left, shaken.

I’m a large person here in Japan. At 5’8”, I’m as tall as most men, taller if I wear heels. Yet I felt small and despicable. My cheeks burned and my pulse raced as I pumped the toxic emotions into sweat biking home.  Perhaps the reason I’ve learned so much, and can function here is because I try to fit in, to do what is expected of me. I’m eager to show myself competent and able to pull my own weight. I don’t want to ask people to fill in forms for me, and hate feeling and acting like a dumb foreigner. But the flip side of this is that I sometimes wrongly assess my abilities, and when things go poorly, I can spend hours, days, even weeks practically paralyzed because I worry that what I’m doing isn’t good enough. A strange perfectionism sets in, and I lose my freedom and get really small. So big and yet so small- that is one of the paradoxes of living as an outsider here.

Would it have been better to just say I couldn’t write Japanese and ask to fill it out in English? My handwriting would certainly have been neater, which is very important in Japanese society. Would it have been better to look over every question carefully before I started writing, make a list of all the info I would need, go home to collect it, and then return another day? Probably so, but as an American raised to value content over form, and time efficiency over most other things, it never crossed my mind.  I’m still mulling it over because it’s not a dead question. I just got my cash card in the mail, along with a polite letter of rejection from the credit card company. It depends on the day, but sometimes I can hardly bear to think about filling out forms again, and other times (especially after a power breakfast and a glance at the new addresses in my address book) it seems really doable.

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Posted by Andrea Johnson under culture.

3 Responses to “Tests Don’t Always Measure What They Seem To…”

  1. You are truly amazing for even having the guts to go through the process at all. And, to share your inner most feelings about the experience just makes me more in awe of you. I’m honored to have you as my friend.

    I definitely see the Light in you.


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    Posted by Julie on 12/13/09 October 16th, 2010 at 1:25 AMReply

  2. Hi Andrea, I remember those kinds of feelings even when it’s been almost 20yrs ago. I was a nurse on a trip to Mexico for the first time with a team to “to good, be helpful, doing eye surgeries” but the two weeks our team was to work, turned into one difficult week! There was only one of the 4 of us who spoke Spanish, and it wasn’t me. Even trying to order foods from a dictionary made me feel small and out of place. The good that came of it was: some persons were helped physically, I was more compassionate and caring for those in our country (USA) who have difficulty with English, and it made me want to trust in the Lord more, ‘tho I still fall short to remember to do this in difficult times. I”m thankful He is so loving, forgiving, and gracious to us at ALL times!
    Prayers for you and all family there thru ALL things may strength, wisdom, and provision be given with JOY IN THE LORD thru all trials I pray in JESUS’ name, AMEN!
    Thank you for sharing your “humanness” with us, as it shows we all need to keep holding each other up with patience and love and prayers!

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    Posted by JulieH-Seattle on 12/13/09 October 16th, 2010 at 1:59 AMReply

  3. I can relate. In our own culture we feel proud of all we have learned and how far we have come, but in our new culture we sometimes feel like a child. We are tempted to cry, but hopefully in retrospect, we can learn from mistakes and even eventually laugh!

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    Posted by Kristine L on 12/13/09 October 16th, 2010 at 10:33 PMReply

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