Monday, June 06, 2011

Attending to signs

At age 4 I remember being fascinated with how adults could decode the marks on the page to turn them into words read aloud. I can still remember the summer afternoon when, like a thunderbolt hitting, I figured out the connection, as my mother read aloud from Green Eggs and Ham. I've been reading voraciously ever since.

In Japan, I am back to being 4 again, painfully aware that there was a connection between the marks and the words, but unable to decode it. Signs: in, out,ladies, gentlemen. Menus: chicken hearts on a skewer or seaweed salad, it was all indecipherable to me. Receipts: is this for lunch in Tokushima or that taxi in Tokyo? I had to mark things immediately so I could keep track. Stores: take a guess from the display in the window.

By the time I left I had a couple of dozen kanji (Japanese characters) I could recognize reliably, including entrance, exit, fire, bath, think, peace, numbers, "the usual way". Imagine having to learn to recognize each word as a symbol, without any phonetic cues. Alas "ladies room" was not among the kanji I mastered, and in some rural spots this was an issue. My finest moment was seeing the kanji for Mitsubishi on the side of an office building, the first character was the symbol for three, and I knew from a ride on the Mita train (the kanji, in the photo, reads "three rice paddies line") line that "mit" is a related to three (if you're just counting, three is san, but if you have three of something, it's mittsu). It was just like when I was four again, I delighted in making a connection between printed word and sound.

More frustrating was a trip to the grocery store, where I bought what I thought was mango yogurt. The carton looked like a yogurt carton, it was in the same general section of the refrigerated case as something I knew to be yogurt, and it had a picture of a mango on the side. But it was not mango yogurt, rather a mango sauce of some sort. Tasty, but not quite as filling as I might have hoped!

My lack of facility with the language on this trip, spoken and written, was frustrating, but it gave me a taste of how difficult it is for those who also lack facility with the lingua franca. The blind, the hard of hearing, immigrants, visitors, the presbyopic without their glasses. My antenna were always out, trying to put together enough clues to function. It made me wonder what I miss on my home territory, where I don't have to keep such a sharp eye out for the clues? What signs am I missing?


  1. There is so much that could be said about this, but what I find myself considering is that the Japanese think and create words with kanji, images. What a thought... how does this impact thinking, living, communicating?

    I traveled to Hong Kong twice, where most things could be said or read in English. However, I once went far out in the New Territories, near what was at that time the border with PRC. Nothing was in English, I ended up getting freaked out and eating at McDonald's... and even there I had to point.

    Words, images, understanding... So much to consider.

  2. I'm still chewing this over, but ended up writing my column for this coming week about my illiteracy, about what happens when one form of communication you rely on is stripped away....