A few weeks ago, we were assigned an essay in Chinese class. I was geekily thrilled (I am the Hermione of my class, btw. Last class I all, “ooh teacher, you haven’t collected our homework yet”) that it was easy for me to construct sentences and put them on paper. I was insanely proud that I was able to hand in a (rather inane) few paragraphs (the topic was our families, how many family members, their age, job, spouses, etc.) Then I remembered that I was writing in Pinyin, not characters and that while I have made huge strides, I am still functionally illiterate.
I’ve learned a few characters, almost all about food. My focus has been entirely zeroed in on speaking. Getting around isn’t so hard, since the subway and most roads are marked in English as well as Chinese. I struggle more with maps, since my android phone runs on google maps, and my VPN doesn’t work on my data. Baidu maps is the google maps equivalent, but is all in Chinese, and if I don’t have the address in Chinese, getting places takes more planning. I can’t take the bus, since I can’t read where it’s going. Menus without pictures have led to some risky but fun “I don’t know what it is, just surprise me” scenarios. I can’t always figure out the signs at the grocery store, and many times think something is on sale only to realize I was mistaken at the register. If I can’t tell if it’s shampoo or lotion, I just buy it and figure it out when I use it.
There are some great apps that will translate a picture of the characters, and the rest is guesswork and some pretty elaborate detective work. It can be frustrating, not being able to read sometimes makes me feel walled up in ignorance. At other times, it’s sort of fun to say fuck it, I’ll find out what’s in this pastry when I bite into it. But yes, my characters need work.