On Being Illiterate

Gosh, do we take reading for granted.  I knew it would be tough before we arrived and steeled myself for the challenge, but wow is it difficult to navigate around a city when you can’t read.  Chinese words, of course, don’t use the Roman language but instead a series of characters called hanzi.  There are the occasional signs in English and sometimes Chinese words are also repeated in pinyin (the phonetic Romanization of the Chinese characters), but not many.

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Horizon Cove bus stop.

Here’s the sign at the bus stop for our apartment complex.  The Chinese characters are in red.  The green below it is the pinyin; that’s how you’d pronounce the stuff in red.  In English, it translates as “Horizon Cove.”  But if I told a taxi driver that I wanted to go to “Horizon Cove,” he wouldn’t understand.  I’d have to tell him to take me to “Haiyi Wanpan.”

There’s no cheating by borrowing tidbits of knowledge from other languages, as I’ve been able to do while traveling in Europe.  (For instance: I learned in high school that the Spanish word for library is biblioteca; while studying abroad in college I learned that the Danish word for library is bibliotek; after memorizing the Russian/Cyrillic alphabet, I was able to figure out that библиотека was pronounced something like библиотека  buhbLuhtekahey! That must mean library!)  No such luck here in China.

To be reasonably able to read Chinese texts, you need to commit to memory some 4,000+ individual hanzi.  Yikes.  Sure, millions of Chinese schoolchildren manage to do it but it seems like a lot of work.  Without a babysitter for Simon, I haven’t been able to enroll in any Chinese classes.  So I’m bumbling along, not making much progress, teaching myself critical words on a need-to-know basis.  I figured out my first word while still in the Hong Kong airport.

Way out.
Way out.

Exit. They say that a good way to learn to read Chinese is by associating the hanzi with a mental image.  So I like to imagine a man flailing his arms and legs ( 出 ) while running out a door ( 口 ).  Maybe there’s a fire.  Maybe he just heard the ice cream truck go by.  Not sure, but he’s definitely in a hurry.

My realizations are simple but exciting.  One of the first words that I learned to recognize was simply “China,” (中国).  China’s name for itself is “Middle Kingdom.”  I see the word a lot.  For instance, our phone plan is provided by China Mobile, so the top of my phone screen says “中国移动.”  Notice the first two symbols?

Anyhow imagine my excitement when I was looking at our gas/water heater, trying to adjust the maximum temperature, and saw this:

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Low, middle, high

Hey!  Lookie!  At the top of the dial–that’s the word for “middle”!  中.  As in, “Middle Kingdom.”  As in, “low, middle, high.”  Wheeeee.  At this rate, I’ll have mastered the 4,000 most used words by the time I’m 100 years old.  In the meantime, when I come upon a situation like this, I stand around aimlessly, raise my eyebrows inquisitively, and look at strangers until someone takes pity on me and points me to the bathroom downstairs.

"Pardon our dust..."
“Pardon our dust…”
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4 thoughts on “On Being Illiterate”

  1. I found the brief time I spent in China, Korea, and Japan extremely disorienting and stressful for this very reason. I would love to learn Japanese, personally, but I just can’t get over the mental hurdle of learning a non-Western character system… even thought I know people who have done it. It doesn’t seem like something that over-40-brains are cut out for!

  2. I tried the Google Translate app on the sign in front of the women’s room by just pointing my phone at your photo on my computer’s screen. It tells me the top red line is “4 ft climb” and the topmost of the black lines is “indeed beer”. So there you are.

    1. Max, you reminded me of something that I forgot to mention in my post–namely, the strengths and weaknesses of translation apps. I’m so grateful for my smartphone and it’s capabilities but it has limitations. You could probably tell me far more about this, but it seems that as of yet, computer software still struggles to read fancy handwriting. Printed text can be translated pretty well, depending on the robustness of the app’s dictionary. But handwritten signs and those with lots of embellishment present a challenge.

  3. No way could I learn that language. I would have to be stamped as illiterate. Can’t decide which is worse….learning to draw those little characters or trying to pronounce them. We think Americans have terrible penmanship. Like doctors writing orders or prescriptions. Can you imagine poor penmanship with those little symbols? Do Chinese computers have Chinese characters on the keyboards?

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