The SAT made me nostalgic. I don’t think it’s supposed to do that, but, with the time I had left at the end of the writing section, I couldn’t help but think back to the first time I took the SAT, in China.
It was my ninth month in Beijing, where I had been living as a student with the foreign exchange program School Year Abroad. The only preparation I’d done for the exam was helping my girlfriend with her practice tests during one of SYA’s infamously long bus rides through rural China. However, I wasn’t nervous. In fact, I felt almost serene — until the proctor came in.
He was an unsure-looking Chinese man, our college counselor’s husband. His name was Mr. Chen. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought he was speaking to us in Mandarin. His accent was as thick as the smog clouding the view of the skyscraper just outside the window of Er Fu Zhong, the Second High School attached to Beijing Normal University.
“Tou dei yu wail tah kuh de SAT,” he began.
All I could think was “Oh man. What am I doing here?”
In spite of the incomprehensible instructions and all the questions I skipped on the math section, I felt pretty good about the test.
Leaving the school and stepping out into the oriental traffic of Xin Jie Kou Wai Da Jie, I was more than a little surprised at how oblivious everyone else seemed. They had no idea that the SAT had just happened, and being around them felt a little bit wrong. I was supposed to be standing in a circle with a bunch of other concerned students, trying to compare answers without giving away any information that would get our scores cancelled, but instead, I was deciding whether I wanted to eat at the dumpling stand next to school or at the Sichuan noodle restaurant further down the street.
As I stood in the middle of the sidewalk making up my mind, I played my iPod, hoping that listening to Kanye West and Bobby Brown would put me a little closer to America and provide me with at least a bit more of the proper post-SAT experience.
I decided to go to the noodle restaurant. One of my American buddies was there with my girlfriend, both of whom had also just finished the SAT. We agreed that it was weird taking an American college entrance exam on the opposite side of the world, but we decided to, rather than reflect on American tests and American schools and American stress, spend the day enjoying China.
We went to Bei Hai Park, a sprawling emperor’s garden with a large lake in the middle, with our Chinese friends Alex and Dolly. We didn’t get home until after eleven p.m., my girlfriend and I reminiscing on our way back about our discussion about equality with a Chinese poet and fondly remembering the lamb kebobs we’d eaten for dinner.
I went to Olive Garden after my second time taking the SAT. The food was okay. Then I went to Homecoming. I got home late — not after eleven — but still late. It was a good day, but, for much of it, I was thinking of how much better its Chinese equivalent had been. I got my score back from the second test a few weeks ago. It was good, but it was a full 90 points lower than the one for the test I’d taken in Beijing.
Is that symbolic? I don’t know. Maybe being in China affected my score. Maybe, through some quirk of the brain, being surrounded in unstable serenity with oblivious Asians and less than adequate test administrators added 90 points to my future. Maybe, or maybe not. I just know I was happier then, and, if I took the SAT a third time, I’d want to do it in China, with smog outside the window and Mr. Chen pretending to speak English. That is where the SAT feels right to me, not in Chalmers listening to Mr. Guerrero tell me to “put down your pencil.”