From Friday night to Saturday night, I spent 10 hours in a car with a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old. And that was the easy part.

The HSK 6, held in Raleigh, North Carolina, was much harder than I was expecting. Even though I passed it with flying colors back in 2011, there were 3 reasons it was a disaster this time around. At least one of them wasn’t my fault.

Student vs. Graybeard

First, it’s been a while since I’ve been a test-taking student, so I’m a bit out of the groove. I was expecting this. What I wasn’t expect was for this to be the smallest problem among the three.

Paper vs. Screen

Second, there’s a big difference between the paper test and the computer test, especially in the listening portion: You can’t read the available answers ahead of time. The last time I took the HSK 6, I got my paper and immediately looked ahead at the 4 possible answers for listening. That way, once the dialogue started piping through my headphones, I already knew what to listen for. Answering the question was then a piece of cake.

Not so this time. The audio started at the same time the words popped up on the screen—along with a friendly timer for that question. You hear the dialogue first, then read your options, then choose your answer.

I just couldn’t do it quickly enough. Seeing the available answers first was critical for me on all previous tests. On Saturday, I found the A, B, C, and D options being ripped away from my grasp before I’d had a chance to even read D, much less choose an answer.

Level 5 Vocabulary vs. Level 6 Vocabulary

This was the killer.

Long long ago, when the new HSK was in its tender youth, snooty high-brow people complained that the level divisions didn’t go high enough. The old HSK went all the way up to a ludicrously difficult 11, which of course native speakers couldn’t even pass. The new HSK only goes up to a 6, which the average Chinese high school student could pass.

It would appear Hanban has heard these cries, and has most definitely raised the bar. The test format is itself identical to what I took in the past, but the difficulty level of the vocabulary has, without a doubt, changed. It used to be that much of the test could be handled with a mastery of level 5 vocabulary. But this time around, if you didn’t have a mastery of level 6 vocabulary, you would quickly find yourself being burned to toast.

This, unfortunately, was me.

Example: In the listening portion, I hear a dialogue. I understand it well enough. But then I look at the A, B, C, D options I have to choose from… I can’t read them. Certainly not quickly. Before I’ve even made it past looking at C (which, by the way, is a 成语: a 4-character idiom, and one I certainly don’t know), the time is up and we’re moving on.

And that about summed it up for Elijah.

Well, almost. There was a major redeeming feature that just might salvage my score from total failure.

Pinyin Ex Machina

The last time I took the HSK 6, I flew through the listening and reading, only to get slammed on the writing section. It was all on paper, so of course your vocabulary was limited to which words you could remember how to write.

Do you want to say that someone sneezed? That would be: 打喷嚏. Nope. Not even the average Chinese person can remember how to write that. Seriously. Just ask. If you have a Chinese friend, ask them to write “sneeze” in Chinese on that unused napkin (“without looking at your phone”). See what happens.

It’s not phonetic, so there’s no such thing as “sounding it out.” Either you remember, or you don’t. Period. Nine times out of ten, even an educated Chinese person won’t remember how to write “sneeze.”

So, if while preparing your HSK answer, you realize you’re stuck on that word, you have to re-think the situation you’re writing about, so that nobody sneezed. Add that problem to about 50% of the words you know, and you find you’re in a real pickle.

Pickle would be: 酸菜. Nope. Can’t remember how to write that first character (yes, you need both). Another word for “pickle” is 窘境. Wow. This keeps getting worse. Forget pickles. Actually, it would appear we need to forget everything except “See Jane Run.” That is, if I only knew how to write “Jane” in Chinese.

I think you get the idea why my Chinese writing score was in the pits last time. But this time? I think I blew it out of the water. On a computer, you can just type the pinyin (the way the words phonetically sound), and the computer will magically give suggestions on what characters you probably are wanting to use. It’s usually dead-on, but even when it’s not, it’s easy to fix.

I was actually done 15 minutes early. I was the only person taking the super-long level 6, so I was the only student left in the room by that time. There was no way to finish the test early, so I just chatted with the proctor while we waited for my test to time out and be submitted.

I’ll get my score in a month, and I’m on the fence about whether or not I passed. There’s a possible 300 points, and 180 is passing. I think it will all depend on how generously my writing will be graded.

Photo: Stopping at a mall on our drive back home after the HSK test.