I was a kid when I was first introduced to the Japanese language. It came in the form of anime, as it tends to be the common experience shared by non-Japanese kids. At first I didn’t understand the appeal; the animated mouths didn’t match up with the words. Eventually my disbelief was suspended, and soon I was watching just about anything and everything that struck my attention. I had fallen in love with the language. I wanted to know everything about Japan; I put the chain of islands on a pedestal too tall for its own good. But these are things that stem from naivety. After several college classes and spending a spring semester abroad, I came to appreciate the country for its good and its bad. It is certainly not perfect, but it is still a place that holds fond memories, dreams yet actualized.
Throughout college, my teachers spoke of the JLPT as a good measure of linguistic skill. The Japanese Language Proficiency Test was just that. It’s administered once a year in America, twice in Japan, for foreign learners to measure their linguistic competency. After leaving Japan that spring semester, I certainly felt ready to take the N2 level. In brief, N2 is considered to be a working competency of Japanese, the level at which one can integrate well into Japanese society and the workforce. N1 is fluent and, as someone who aims to translate in the future, it is the level of fluency I strive for.
The first time I took the N2, it was in the midst of a rather rough patch in my life. Fourth year of college was met with a daunting challenge, the details of which I won’t get into. Know that it required all of me, and in giving my all to the situation I neglected myself and my goals. I took the exam under an immense amount of stress and without proper preparation. I wanted to skip it. Still, I took it and proceeded to stay up the next night to complete a translation project. I got an A on that project, but the following January, on my birthday, I found out I failed. It wasn’t a surprise, but it made my diaphragm tighten. I clenched my jaw and licked my teeth and stared up at lights to force the tears back into their ducts, because it was no surprise. I didn’t have time to study; I didn’t have the mental space to try.
Last year and this year came full circle. Although I put in the efforts to study on my own and prepare for the test, even though I generally felt much more prepared for the exam this year, I found out, on my birthday, that I didn’t pass.
I told myself I would wait until after my birthday weekend to check on the results. Temptation, the cruel mistress she is, called my name while on the train ride home and I couldn’t resist. I couldn’t find the strength to wait it out. I caved and I checked and I sighed deeply when I saw the words “Not Passed” in the results box. My scores were broken down; I, once again, did great on the listening section.
That knowledge didn’t unease the anxiety from my core. For the rest of my ride home, I was biting the inside of my lip and listening to Kendrick Lamar and trying to convince myself that this was not the end all be all. I messaged friends to tell them what happened; they offered encouragement and positivity. I thanked them, and it worked for a bit. The next night I went out with friends to celebrate our birthdays; I dressed up and felt this confidence about myself I hadn’t felt in a few months.
At the time that I write this, I got home from spending the day out with a new friend I made. She’s from Japan, participating in a program that gave her the chance to spend 10 months in Australia and about a month and a half in New York. She speaks English but most of our conversation was in Japanese. There were a few times where I didn’t understand her, but all simple fixes. We turned to dictionaries or other descriptors to get to the same meaning.
The truth is that I wanted to pass the N2. I wanted to have the paper validation that my linguistic abilities are legitimate. On that train ride home, I questioned them and me and my intelligence. Just because I could speak it didn’t mean, at that moment, that I was good at the language. The test score was proof of that–it had to be.
After spending the day with her, however, I realized that that wasn’t the case and it didn’t have to be. I’m not good at standardized tests. In high school, my highest score on the SAT, after the second attempt, was 1730 (when they still had the writing section). Despite a score that was probably below average, I flourished at one of the top universities in the country. In my final, most stressful year, I earned straight As in both semesters. I can write a damn good paper. So while the SAT score painted one picture of me, my actual efforts in college revealed another.
I suppose, then, that’s the moral I should take away from this experience. Certainly, the test score is not the end all be all. I think if I was as bad at Japanese as my fatalistic perspective would have me believe, I wouldn’t have been able to thrive in Japan when I was studying there. I wouldn’t be able to hang out with my new friend and not struggle to communicate with her. I think, if anything, not passing the JLPT just confirms that standardized tests, of any kind, have never been my strong point. And that’s okay. If I passed I’m sure I would have another feeling about the test, but I can’t say for certain. That reality doesn’t exist.
Reconciling with failure is one of my greatest Achilles’ heels. There was a time in my life in which failure was not acceptable. The last year uncovered a lot of my own unhealthy thought processes when it comes to failing. I’m working on that, though, and it’s very much an everyday process. This is one of those times that I need to be my own friend and still give myself a pat on the back for taking the test in the first place. This is something pretty vulnerable for me, but in sharing I’m hope to convey to those reading that I take myself so seriously and it’s not always an endearing trait of mine. I’m not my own hypeman; I’m not my own friend. Quite honestly, I’ve never been, and that’s the reality in which I exist. It’s the reality I’m trying to change, and this is the first opportunity I have to do that.
All of that said, I don’t know if I’ll take the exam again. I do aspire to be a translator, but the truth is that anyone can pass a test. I want to be fluent in Japanese, yes. I will do everything in my power to achieve that. A test, however, might not be the most ideal route for me at this moment. I’ve been practicing translating on the side. I enjoy putting my language skills to the test in that way. I’ve been going to a weekly language exchange on Friday evenings. Instead of beating myself up about not passing the exam again, I want to continue to develop my practical use of Japanese by actually using it.
So. There you have it. And there I have it. Let it be a reminder to you all that life goes on and on and on. Getting stuck on one event won’t make it stop. Might as well keep going.