Tuesday, July 18, 2006

i'm illiterate!


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;

1. Caution
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.

10 comments:

Lex. said...

Hey, Love your observations on finding yourself illiterate. I think there's some learning there for people in the UK when trying to connect with 'hard to reach' audiences.

Are you working in Advertising out in China? I'd love to know how you cope with being illiterate in the work place. Lex.

i see what you mean said...

thanks Lex, and yes, i m working in ad agency here. As you can imagine an illiterate planner is a real jewel in the crown. Luckily its an international agency so the operating language is english but i ll post something more about this asap for you.

Anonymous said...

Having lived & worked in China I can completely relate. A real life experience of walking in our consumers shoes. I'd be interested in hearing more of your experiences

i see what you mean said...

thank you - and very nice to know it was the same for you.

Actually that reminds me I should add that there's a lot of english, especially for official things (notices, instructions, menus, street signs etc) so its actually very manageable most of the time. This is from the little things that tend to catch me out, but they are enough to bring the point home.

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lex. said...

Cool, I'm actually trying to talk to somebody at the moment about a Planning job myself out in Beijing. If it starts to come to anything would you be up for a chat?

Cheers
Lex

i see what you mean said...

hi lex, I'd love to have a chat about working in china - I'm sorry I did reply earlier but for some reason my reply hasn't appeared. Please email me (email in the about section).

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