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. But here in this new city, I cannot read the local language at all. My second day, 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.

But 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 in her country and her parents could not afford to send their 11 children to school. She only learned the alphabet after she got married, and her ability with it remained limited all her life. 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.

At the time, my bookwormish teenage self was bewildered that I managed to connect with someone who had never read a book. The adult me marvels that she managed to get by when she couldn’t even read small and practical things: signage, menus, flyers. You don’t even realize how text-filled the world is until you can no longer read the writing all around you. And how did she manage when her children moved abroad and she travelled to see them, making her way in places where her language wasn’t spoken at all?

Right now, as I muddle through this new country, I keep telling myself that she managed, and so can I.