January 4, 2010

When I was a kid – middle school, I think – I remember watching a short film in my English class about an illiterate adult in the U.S. I suppose the intention was to instill in us the importance of being able to read, but – as I was already quite literate at that point – most of the message was lost on me.

However, I do remember one scene from the film quite well. The subject of the film (let’s call him "Henry" for now – I don’t know what his name really was) tells about how he was able to (mostly) get around his disability when taking public transportation by counting stops, or checking outside landmarks to know how close he was (because, of course, he couldn’t read any of the signs that would tell him where he was).* One particular time, though, he fell asleep.

I can remember the images on the screen, and the sadness and fear in Henry’s throat as he describes waking up on the BART** train, completely confused and terrified. It was late at night, he didn’t recognize any of the landmarks. He didn’t know how far he had gone. He had never been past his stop before (because of the difficulty of finding his way back), so he wouldn’t be able to figure out when his stop was coming (after he got off the train and headed back in the direction he came from) until after he passed it.

Obviously, he was able to sort it out. It wasn’t life or death. But, for some reason, I felt so viscerally his panic and shame when he missed his stop. He didn’t want to ask other people because he was embarrassed. He was confused and panicked. And that really stuck with me.

So it’s only appropriate that now – almost 20 years later – I’ve finally had a taste of what adult illiteracy really feels like. Because, of course, I’m illiterate here.

Completely. I see people reading a book on the subway, and all I can do is peer at the "strange symbols" and wonder what the book is about. If I can’t see the cover, I have to try to imagine if it’s a novel, or maybe a textbook, or something else. I go to a local restaurant (one without pictures) and order, and then they ask me to specify, pointing at one array of characters I can’t read versus another – so I randomly choose one, having no idea. At the bank, trying to send money via Western Union to a friend in Tanzania, I just stared at form after form, all in Chinese, trying to figure out how I could fill it out and actually have my friend receive the money . . .

If I’m late to an appointment of some sort (work, or class, or whatever), I’ll pass a bus stop, knowing that one of those buses will probably go right by wherever I’m headed, but I can’t read the schedule or list of stops, and so I have to just speed-walk on by, arriving late to my spot.

My first time at the major train station, I felt a twinge of panic – line after line leading up to windows with different characters above them – which line do I go to? Am I going to just pick one, wait the half-hour it takes to get to the window only to find out that I’m in the completely wrong line? At that point, my Chinese was so poor that asking wouldn’t have accomplished much – and I was embarrassed.

Embarrassed to have to ask. Embarrassed that I’m living in this country, have immediate family from this land, and still so completely unable to break the code that is Chinese writing and function on that basic level.

I’m illiterate. A concept that is laden with shame back in the States.

But, luckily, there’s a lot of English in Shanghai. The subway has a robot-voice. My Mandarin is getting better, so I can ask for directions and actually understand the response. I’m trying to learn to read and write.

But I’m still mostly illiterate. I feel like a child when I look at signs now – picking out the handful of characters I know, trying to figure out anything about what the sign says. Learning to recognize characters for locations I go to a lot (all based on pattern-recognition, as opposed to a real sense of "reading"). I can write my name, but I even screw that up, sometimes.

And so I find myself imagining the life of "Henry" back in the U.S. Where there is no "back-door literacy" (like how Shanghai caters quite a bit to English-speakers). Where he didn’t have the privilege I have (as a "Western" traveler, my money being worth more here). Where his illiteracy has to be a secret, a shame, that keeps him from being able to ask for the help he needs.

And that’s the problem with different forms of oppression in the States – how we use shame and stigma to make them even that much harder to overcome. Through socialization and the media, we convince folks in poverty that they should be embarrassed about it, decreasing their self-esteem enough to make it less likely that they even ask for the help to try and dig out. Victims of abuse (all forms) often are too ashamed to admit it. Somebody with an education so poor it left them illiterate . . .

All issues that – by and large – are not really the fault of the people experiencing them.*** And yet, they are the ones that end up feeling shame for their situations. Not those in power who create these systems. Not the people with money or privilege that choose not to do anything. All those truly responsible? Feeling proud of the "success" they’ve "made for themselves," while belittling all those who didn’t work hard enough, or who weren’t strong enough to be in similar situations.

And so I find myself really admiring those who attend adult literacy classes. Who fight through that shame and find the time (usually at night, after a long day of work) to try to learn to read (so much harder in adulthood). Having to figure out a new set of transportation routes, asking around for help (because they can’t just read an ad). Making up for the mistakes of an education system that lets that come to pass. People who fight through all that? The real heroes and "success-stories" of this country. So often ignored (or even belittled).

But never again by me.

And I hope that I can muster just a fraction of their courage and dedication while continuing to learn to read and write (and speak) here – especially when my motivation is lacking. Because there is no system keeping me from being successful – no real hurdles to overcome. So, in my particular case, if I don’t learn to read Chinese – it’s all my own fault.

You’ve got to appreciate the privilege of having only your own motivation-level to hold you back, don’t you? If only the rest of the world was so simple.

* This was back in the day before buses and subways started having robot-voices to say out loud what stop you were at.

** The SF Bay Area subway system.

*** Yeah, yeah – always exceptions, and everybody is accountable and has responsibilities, but come on . . .

**** The picture looks really neat, eh? It’s pretty much the equivalent of a child’s sloppy hand-writing of the A-B-Cs.



  1. Wow, this is really powerful. So interesting that you remember that film so clearly and can apply it to your situation and empathize more with it now. It is a disgrace that a person who has gone to school can come out without reading and really, stigma or no stigma, you shouldn’t be able to get out of 1st grade without being able to read and if you are having serious problems then you need to be evaluated for learning disabilities. It is scary how easy it is for kids to fall through the cracks. Shockingly, I have a friend who used to teach in a fairly well-to-do suburb in a college town in NC. She had a 6th grade, white student who could barely read. I was shocked that a kid in such a good school district could get that far without anyone noticing or caring enough to deal with the situation. Even though she pretty much only had him for science, she made a point of working with him after school to help with his reading. I’m not sure if she sent him to the child-study-team for evaluation or not. I think she said his mother was rather young so maybe that is how it happened but the fact that a white child, in a privileged environment can so easily fall through the cracks, I shudder even more for the minority and poor kids of all races out there.

    ANyway, good luck with your struggle with learning how to read and write in Chineese. I understand it is a very difficult language for native Western language speakers to pick up, but I’m sure it is just as hard the other way around and I’ve met lots of people from China who have learned.

    Love getting your updates on life in China. NOt sure if you can talk about this using the internet from there but any opinions or word on the street on that British citizen who was executed for drug smuggling despite some compelling evidence that he was mentally ill and tricked into carrying the stuff by the real bad guys? At least the Brits are saying he was mentally ill and the people he fell in with put the stuff in his bag without his consent.

  2. I can spell, really I can. Meant to type Chinese not Chineese.

  3. Also wishing you luck in learning to read & write in Chinese. Tip of the day – carry your character flash cards w/ you at all times and go through them when you’re waiting for the bus, etc.

    I’m semi-literate – can read bus signs, menus, maps, make out headlines of newspapers and get the gist of simple magazine articles – but using traditional characters. I have a harder time w/ the simplified characters in the Mainland.

    I sometimes wonder what it would be like to live in HK or China and not be able to read Chinese at all.

    But, getting back to your feeling of illiteracy, that’s the way I felt when I visited Nepal & Thailand on holidays and didn’t have any idea of the script, even whether it was written left to right or right to left.

    Moving to Taiwan when I was a fresh graduate (even w/ all the privileges I have) did make me understand the immigrant experience much more – and made me much more responsive and wanting to help others when I went back to the USA.

  4. @ Lisa J – the only information I can access from here about the UK citizen who was executed is from the Chinese side, so I’m not really in a position to judge. I do wonder, though, if his name and skin-tone was different, if the result would have been the same . . .

    As for the rest, I admit I was a bit worried about the reference you made (to the white kid), but I get your point on it – race and economic privilege are not always a protection against the current education system.

    @skreader – I’m going to start drawing up some flashcards right now . . .

  5. @CVT
    I’m sorry, I hope my story about my friend wasn’t too problematic. As a person of color, I’d have been more upset if it had been a child of color but I sort of would have expected for a school, especially one in a predominately white upper-middle class mostly white color area, to let say a child of color fall through the cracks. Based on my experience at such a school, it would have seemed “typical” because children of color get overlooked so much in many environments, and often have their needs willfully ignored by white teachers who make an effort with their white students but not so much with the others. But it didn’t occur to me that this same scenario could happend to a white child in that type of environment, which I suppose is stupid, since there could be a host of issues, including class that may have intersected with his problem. I have no idea if the child himself was actually upper-middle class or if he may have been poor or disadvantaged but still lived in that mostly affluent school district and that was the reason why the other teachers let him slip through or he had a learning disability and the teachers were just too lazy to do anything about it. Anyway, I wasn’t trying to be offensive and apologize if it came across that way.

  6. Good luck with learning how to read. As they say, 慢慢来 (it’ll come eventually). My main man went to Shanghai without knowing how to read or write and felt much the same way; he’s now good enough at least to read a menu, which he did through a lot of rote memorization and writing practice, along with the help of a few radical books. I would definitely recommend learning the radicals — they’re “hints” as to sound and meaning (e.g. all poultry items have a “bird” 鸟 in them — 鸡 chicken, 鸭 duck) — as well as other commonly-used restaurant language (e.g. pork dishes often have “meat” 肉 in the name; a vegetable name is usually two characters, X + 菜; the types of cooking — 炒 stir-fry, 蒸 steam, 炸 fry). Once you can somewhat get by with a menu, your confidence goes way up and you feel at least 50% more human. 😉

    Also, re: living in HK without knowing how to speak or read Chinese: So, so, so easy, especially if you live on Hong Kong Island. The British rule only ended eleven years ago and most of HK speak a smattering of English. On HK Island, restaurants with English menus are the norm; it’s about 75:25 in Kowloon and 50:50 in the New Territories. All public signs are in Chinese and English and most of the private signs are as well. All services are available in Cantonese and English and sometimes Mandarin (the latter being useful for me as my Cantonese is still pretty bad and the Mandarin fluency here in HK is relatively low, especially when compared with Macao). There are people who’ve lived their entire lives here with little more than the most basic of Cantonese phrases and able to recognize only a bitty bit of Chinese (usually “police”, “toilet”, “male”, and “female”) and they get by swimmingly. (Myself I’m a bit disgusted with this, but that’s simply how things are here.)

  7. I should state that I moved down to Hong Kong — three years now — after having lived in Shanghai for about the same period of time. It’s definitely harder to live there when you can’t read or even recognize Chinese, but at the same time I did know people who’ve lived in their expat enclaves out in Pudong for 10+ years without speaking or reading much (if any) Chinese at all. (In the case of the Japanese couple I knew, they could read and understand what they read enough to get by, but were completely uninterested in learning to speak Mandarin. They’ve been there for nine years now.) They had these cards for all potential interactions — items to show a taxi driver or police officer, for example — and had people (e.g. driers, ayi) to take care of things for them. I still have a hard time getting my mind around how they can live like that, as it seems much more difficult there than in Hong Kong.

    • Just got back from Hong Kong, and I can see what you’re talking about – as I’ll write in a later post, Hong Kong just isn’t at all like the rest of China . . . Definitely feels like I could never speak anything but English there without a problem (I showed up, speaking Mandarin to everybody and all that, but they mostly just gave me weird looks and went with English).

      Yeah – the “return of the colonialists” lifestyle (never bothering to learn the language of where you live, relying on servants, etc.) has always blown my mind. Why would you live in a country if you are that dismissive of the people and culture like that? Seems like they’d be happier elsewhere . . . but I guess they can’t live that kind of lifestyle “back home” . . .

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