Illiteracy Strikes

I must have slept, but well before dawn I was dressed and peering down at the awakening street from my room at the Foreign Language Institute on the northern outskirts of Shanghai. The soft yellow light of a small shop across the street warmed the morning darkness; a lone truck rolled by, its tires hissing against wet pavement. A man and woman wrapped in dark-blue padded trousers and jackets moved boxes from

Shop workers in the early morning light

It was my first trip to China, twenty years ago. Another mid-career graduate student and I had arrived in Shanghai near midnight from Los Angeles. Met by friends of our Ph.D. advisor we had been taken to this hotel to get some sleep before traveling on to Nanjing by train.



Early morning light crept into the shadows below me. A street car squealed along the tracks, sparks flickering off the wires. A few people sat inside, some dozing, others talking.

My attention returned to the small shop. Another man appeared and began to adjust the chain on a delivery tricycle. They must be making morning buns, I thought. I looked instinctively at the large Chinese characters attached to the building, only to realize that one twelve-hour flight had rendered me illiterate. To my western eyes, the Chinese writing was purely decorative.

It’s now 2009 and after a score of trips, I’m still illiterate. I have learned a lot about how children learn to write Chinese and how characters are constructed. I can recognize a character for ‘wood’ here, the one for ‘gate’ there, but in everyday life, I remain illiterate in China. Frustrating as it is, it has taught me a lot. I now have an inkling about how people of the world survive who have not had a chance to become literate. I have developed an enormous visual memory for physical detail. The color of a shop door, how the signs in a shop are arranged, what landmarks are nearby, any identifying marks that will help me locate it again.

To figure out what is in a food package, I poke and feel and look at pictures, hoping they are accurate. Sometimes I succeed, other times not. At a banquet on my last trip I presented a large jar of candy to a department dean only to find out those shiny wrappers hid bits of dried beef. Embarrassed in shops, I sometimes study packages and directions much too long, hunting for clues and brushing sales clerks off with a wave of my hand. “Thank you, Xie Xie. I don’t need help.” But really I should say, “I’m beyond help.”

Life along the streets. Xi'an

An advantage has emerged from this shortcoming, however. My heightened observation skills have led me to see subtleties in every day life. The step by step process a grandfather uses to show his grandson how to throw a fishing line into a small pond. The rhythmic motions of women practicing sword dances in the early morning hours. The way Chinese citizens know how to fit through a space in a crowd that I would never think passable. On and on go my revelations, seen because I can’t read. Definitely a surprise advantage born of my ignorance.

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