Taking the TOPIK Exam

I sat for the TOPIK (Test of Proficiency in Korean) test yesterday. The TOPIK test is offered four times a year in Korea and twice a year internationally. There are three tests and six levels. Generally speaking, if you want to study at a Korean university as an undergraduate, you need a four. As a graduate student, you need a five. I have no interest in doing either, but the test is only $15 in this area, so why not take it?

I signed up for the beginner (1/2) test. I’ll take the intermediate (3/4) test next year if I’m interested. (I’ll be taking two graduate classes and will possibly have a student teacher in the fall, so no way am I even considering taking it in September.)

I’ve been practicing for the test since the beginning of the year, which means I’ve focused more on grammar than I normally do, I’ve taken some practice tests, and I emailed Sister essays for her to correct. Although I knew almost all of the vocabulary, my grammar definitely needed some brushing up on. One of the problems with reading so much is that I can figure out a lot from context, but if I miss nuance, it doesn’t often matter in my understanding and enjoyment of the story. The focus on grammar was a good idea.

You have to sign up for the test two months in advance. Well, Thursday one of my students puked in class and went home with a high fever. Friday, another student puked and went home with a fever. Wednesday is when I felt a cold coming on. Friday night I needed “Ny-Kill” to fall asleep, so I was not looking forward to dragging myself 30 minutes away to take a Korean exam. I was worried I’d puke and be sent home with a fever, just like my kids.

Enough about that—the test itself was held at a large Korean church about 30 minutes way. I knew about this place, because they offer Korean classes (to kids) on Saturdays. I doped myself up on Day-Kill and made it there at about 9:05. Although there was a sign about the test, there were no signs telling me where to go, so I had to ask someone for help.

We were told the doors would be open between 9 and 9:20 and that the test would start at 9:30. I had wondered why it took so long to get my registration ticket back in the mail, and I soon figured out why. The registration numbers were not assigned in order of registration, but of age. So the youngest test takers (who appeared to be about third grade) were at the very front, and all of us old folks were in the last row.

Three ajummas were running the test, and they gave the directions in Korean. Basically, a sign pen (felt-tipped marker) was used to mark our answers. We could bring our own pencil or pen to do the fill-in-the blank written section and the essay. We could mark on the test booklet, too. If we made a mistake on the answer sheet, they’d fix it with whiteout. Cool, we started.

And then people trickled into the room. So much for the 9:30 solid start time.

While they gave directions, I looked around. Of approximately 60 testers, exactly five of us appeared to be over the age of 20. The same five were the only people in the room who did not appear to be Asian. In fact, I’ll hazard a guess and specify we were the only five people in the room without Korean greatgandparents. We were sitting in the very back row and the teenagers kept turning around and looking at us.

Was I back in Korea?

We started the first half of the test, which is grammar/vocabulary and writing. After doing ten questions or so I glanced at the prompt and was relieved to find it was something I could think of ideas for. (Who’s your best friend, how did you meet, and what do you do together? Write about your best friend.) I jotted down a few phrases and went back to finish the grammar section.

After I finished the grammar/vocab, I wrote a quick draft about Master before doing the rest of the writing section. That gave me about 30 minutes of the 90 minute period to redraft the paper and write it in my best handwriting. One minute before the testing period was up, I realized I’d inserted an extra space after a period, but I decided I didn’t have enough time to erase 16 characters to recopy them. Oh well. The essay was supposed to be 150-300 characters and mine was 288. Not bad.

While we were taking the test, mothers were hovering near the windows, peering in at their kids. One of the teenagers sitting in front of us (we were in pairs) didn’t even bother to write a single character for her essay. Looking around the room, most of the older kids didn’t want to be there. Most of the younger kids looked worried. And then there was foreigner row.

I wondered why so many kids were there. I figured the older ones might be testing to be exempt from foreign language requirements, but the youngest ones? Were they just there so their mothers could brag about their scores?

During the break, I found out three of the other foreigners knew each other and had all studied Japanese together. The fourth guy was Hungarian and this was only his third day in the country. He didn’t really have an answer for why he was studying Korean, so I decided he was a spy and didn’t push.

During our half hour break, two of the youngest girls were talking in the bathroom. “Do we have to go back?”

“Yeah, there’s another part.”

“What? What is it?”

“I don’t know,” the second girl shrugged.

“There’s a listening section, and a reading section,” I said.

The first girl’s jaw dropped, “Reading? They didn’t tell me that!”

“Yeah, and the listening section is really slow,” I said, “보…기…”

And the listening section was really slow. In fact, it was so slow that the teenagers were all giggling about it. At least until they got to the section where one dialogue counts for two questions. Apparently they weren’t expecting it and didn’t understand the directions. Panic was seen on faces.

During the listening section I looked around and recounted. We were down ten test takers, including the girl who didn’t even write a single sentence for her essay. Foreigner Row was still intact, though.

We weren’t supposed to leave the room during testing, but at this point the Day-Kill started to wear off and I really needed to blow my nose. One of the ajummas had to follow me out and watch me (to make sure I wasn’t cheating, I guess). “Oh,” she said in Korean, “it must be hard to take the test when you’re sick!”

Awww, it really was like being back in Korea, with the ajummas taking care of the weird foreigner.

The second half of the test ended, and the waygookins stood around debating the last two passages. They were about salt and health, and how happy feet make a body happy. I’m sure the young test takers found those exciting, let me tell you.

As I was leaving, I ran into the young girl again, this time with her mother. “Did you do OK?” she asked me.

“I think I did alright, what about you?”

“You were right, the listening was really slow!”

Before stepping out in the pouring rain, I stopped to put on my sunglasses. In Korean, my ajumma asked me how I did on the test. “It was OK,” I said, “but I don’t like having this cold.”

“This is very hard,” she agreed, “Why do you study Korean?”

“Because my mother-in-law doesn’t speak English.”

“Does she live here?”

“No,” I said, “She lives in Korea. I lived in Korea and met my husband there.”

The ajumma patted me, “Ah! I am sure your mother is proud of her foreign daughter-in-law!”