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On Experiencing Illiteracy

There is an irony to spending your day on the minutest details of the written word – only to find yourself illiterate every time you leave the office. This happens because wǒ bù huì kàn zhōngwén (I cannot read Chinese).

Lately I am reminded of my grandmother’s aunt, whom I met when I was 19 and she was nearly 90. In her day, education was not free and her parents could not afford to send their 11 children to school. So she didn’t learn the alphabet until after she got married, and her ability with it remained limited. She could sign her name (she took pride in this – no X on the line for her!), or match a written-down street name to a street-sign. But she could do no more than sound out, painfully and slowly, two or three lines of a postcard written phonetically in her native language.

My bookwormish teenage self was bewildered that I managed to connect with someone who had never read a single book. The adult me marvels that she couldn’t even read the small things: signage, menus, flyers. How did she manage in places where her language wasn’t spoken at all? Yet all her children moved abroad, so she travelled – and she managed.

My second day in this city, I was alone and hungry and surrounded by restaurants, afraid to order because I couldn’t read any of the menus. And I quickly found that although I could ask some questions (“Does this [pointing to a picture] have [things I can’t eat]?”), I couldn’t understand the answers.

Did my grandmother’s aunt ever have this experience? How did she get through these moments? I think of her often, and remember that she managed. And take solace, as I muddle through, that I can manage as well.