Tuesday, July 18, 2006
One thing living in China has helped me to understand is illiteracy. I can only recognize about 100 Chinese characters and you need 2000 to qualify as basically literate. China's adult illiteracy is just under 9% according to government statistics while the Global illiteracy rate is estimated by UNESCO at around 25%. Finding myself suddenly illiterate has helped me understand how not being able to read affects your behaviour;
I rarely buy anything unless it has English or a really clear picture of the product. I don't switch brands or varieties unless I'm sure of what it is. I've just bought a new camera and although I wanted to change brand I bought the same as before as I'm used to operating it. I also knew I wouldn't understand the instructions for a new one. I don't experiment with the camera either as I'm worried about breaking it or getting it stuck on underwater party photo mode permanently.
2. Needing pictures
Obviously visuals clues are really important especially on packaging, preferably pictures of the product itself and if appropriate, ingredients. I don't appreciate ambiguous graphics - there is nothing more upsetting when you really want a cup of tea and then finding you've brought yoghurt instead of milk (please note Chinese dairies, a white tidal wave = milk. Put the yoghurt in a bowl, milk in a tidal wave). Simple brand logos that also give you strong product clues are very welcome.
2. Disruption to routine is bad
I can just about guess what my bills are for and I can pay them at certain local shops but if I miss a payment I have to go to the company' office which is a nuisance as I can't understand their directions or the addresses. If shops or companies move I'm stuck as their new location is rarely posted in English. I like restaurants with predictable things on the menu that I can recognise too. Basically I like things to stay the same.
3. Learning specifics to cope
If I take the train I have to learn my location names in advance so if I miss the English signs I can still identify my stop. The same goes for restaurants or houses that might only have Chinese names so I know characters that will help me guess I've arrived (like the restaurant sign above).
4. Loss of privacy
When I need to read a note or an official letter I have a range of friends and colleagues I can ask but it has its limits and it makes me nervous not know what I'm divulging - maybe its my cleaning lady writing about me being a hopeless slattern? Or the government ordering me out of the country? Luckily bank details and contracts are often available in English but what if had to go flashing them around to understand them? Privacy isn't just a nice emotional hygiene factor, its also connected to security, personal freedom and self determination.
Being illiterate, if you'll excuse the expression, is proving to be a real education.