I have undergone two relatively sudden life changes: I have become rich, and illiterate.
I'm rich because I'm earning an American salary while living in China. A ride in a Mercedes here costs half an ordinary taxi ride back home; dinner for two is regularly less than the tip at any Greenwich Village etablissement fancier than Mamoun's Falafel.
So I am Daddy Warbucks, swanning about in town cars and not even haggling with the good people of Baoshan Lu over the price of a quadcopter. (They always take me for a rube until I start asking for better batteries -- the price is negligible, but the tech isn't.) This idyll of purchasing power parity, however, is disrupted by the other recent change, which is that I have also lost the ability, when out and about, to read.
This is not quite as dire as it might be; Shanghai's global importance means street and subway signs often include English labels. (As an aside, all the talk of whether Chinese or English will become the globally dominant language is silly. At this point, China itself is one of the principal exporters of English, because English solves the same problem for China it does for Europe. In an area of linguistic diversity and historic enmities, there is no way that the Chinese could or would translate street signs into Thai, Korean, and Japanese, much less Hindi, Mongolian, and Tagalog. English solves that problem. So long as everyone has the same second language, everyone gets to shake what their mother tongue gave 'em.)
So, the road signs, sometimes the English is just phonetic Chinese. I live at 锦和路, or Jin He Lu. (Lu is 'road.') Sometimes, though, the English is a translation, rather than phonetic. I work on 世纪大道, which appears on the sign as 'Century Avenue' but is pronounced, in Mandarin, Shì Jì Dà Dào. I have come to love the phonetic road names and hate the translated ones, because you can tell a cab driver "Jin He Lu", but saying "Century Avenue" is mystifying -- you might as well be speaking another language.
When I say "Tell a cab driver", though, I am making it sound easier than it is -- Mandarin is famously tonal, and relies heavily on the pronunciation of vowels. (As an example, we have two adjacent provinces, Shanxi and Shaanxi, that are straight inland from Beijing, so good luck with the train travel on that one.) Anyway, home is Jin He Lu, but, in what has become a bit of family vaudeville, that phrase that is rendered ambiguous by American pronunciation (or at least this American's pronunciation.) A lot of cab rides start like this:
Me: Jin He Lu.
Driver: Jing Huh Lu?
Me: ...Jinh...Heh Lu.
Driver: Jin Ke Lu?
Me: Ji'in HEU Lu
Driver: Ah, Jin He Lu!
Me: Dui, xie xie. (That's right, thanks.)
The driver's final "Jin He Lu" is rendered with the universally comprehensible air of "Well whyncha say so!," which of course is what I was trying to do all along. I am like Keith Carradine's kung fu apprentice, but instead of snatching the pebbles from the Master's hand, I will be allowed to roam the length and breadth of China once I successfully tell a cabbie how to take me home on the first try.
For an added hilarity bonus, our apartment is at the intersection of Jin He Lu and Dong Jian Lu, but those roads bend away from each other like the outline of a football, meaning there is a second intersection of Jin He and Dong Jian, about 4 blocks east from where we live. How 'bout them urban planning?
So, any old way, the street signs are a godsend, but when it comes to understanding Chinese characters, the only ones I recognize on sight are 上海 (Shanghai) and 中国 (China.) This is a surprisingly useless skill, if you live in 上海，中国. As a result, I've noticed myself adopting a bunch of compensating behaviors.
First, numbers have become incredibly important clues to what a sentence might mean. The sequence 8/7/14 is clear, as are things like 120/240 and 19:45. I once fixed an appliance in our apartment when I figured out, in the otherwise incomprehensible manual, that the '180' in one line of the instructions meant that I had to turn the handle half-way round.
I am also reading storefronts like a Anglo-Saxon peasant. Sign with bowl means cooked food. Sign with fruit means raw food. Sign with shoe means shoe repair. And the barber pole turns out to be a platinum-iridium standard, worldwide. Sometimes, though, this symbology trips me up -- when I was last in the Beijing train station and looking for dinner, I spotted a sign sporting big red chopsticks, and headed across the station and through the crowd to get to a place that...sells chopsticks.
So I can make out the basics of commerce, but I miss the subtler cues. I didn't realize that the walk from the subway to our apartment goes right past a string of brothels until the first time I made the trip without my wife, and the invitations from the doorways took on a more direct air, comprehensible in tone even though they were in Mandarin. The characters above the high-heeled ladies could read "Happy Ending Massage and Genital Stimulus Emporium" for all I know, but it might as well be rendered in emoji. (Actually, emoji I might have understood. .)
But the most striking change I've experienced, now that I am illiterate, is a kind of deep (lowercase c) conservatism of action. One of the first electronics marts I came to know well was the Shangfeng Mall, and man, when you are illiterate, your visual memory gets cranked to unity gain. The first time I went through the place, I registered what I saw so well that for weeks afterwards, whenever the family's needed anything technological, I'm all like "I know where there's a China Unicom office", "I know where to get a Windows laptop", mutatis mutandis for repaired phone screens, printers, vidya, and so on.
Now Shangfeng Mall is not walking distance from either home or work, but since transportation is easy and interacting with merchants is hard, I am willing to do more of of the easy stuff, if it will save me even a little of the hard stuff. And the place I see this tradeoff most clearly is the place I get all my network gear, a plain little booth piled high with cables and routers on the second floor of Shangfeng. I met the couple who run it the first time I went to that mall, and (this is the critical part) they were nice to me.
And that was that -- every strand of cable our apartment, ether, USB, and HDMI, along with a bevy of splitters and chargers and two routers, have come from that shop. Electronics is crazy cheap here and I've still travelled out of my way to do thousands of yuan of business with this one little mom-and-pop outfit, buying commodity gear that is not just replicated in similar shops all over Shanghai, but is sold by several other booths in the same row of stalls on the second floor of the Shangfeng Mall. But fuck it, those are my people.
This is the change that most interests newly-illiterate me -- like what I've heard about blind people's hearing, my social sensitivity has been dialed up along with my visual acuity. I've been to the Radio Shack near my old apartment a couple dozen times in the last couple of years, and I couldn't tell you what a single salesperson looks like, but this couple, selling completely ordinary electronics, won my business by being nice to someone for whom the most basic transaction was something of a struggle. (They, I am sure, have no such sense of me. If someone asked if there was a bald laowai who kept coming by to overpay for routers, I make the odds that they'd remember me about 12 to 7 against.)
Now I'm not saying I'm having some Learnful Experience about srs bzness illiteracy here, like college applicants who build one house in Knoxville and are suddenly down with the poor. I'm hiring BMWs to chauffer me to cut-rate electronics markets, and rich+illiterate is one of the world's least populous demographic categories.
But I am suddenly curious about the particular grain of urban adaptation illiteracy encourages. I'm a college professor and the child of a professor and librarian; illiteracy to me has always been both awful and unimaginable, but now I can imagine an odd little corner of the condition.
What I didn't understand is that compared to the literate, illiterate life isn't just less, isn't just a reduction in the things you can do, it's also different, requiring a set of compensations and adaptations that I hadn't even understood until this fall.
And I wonder which of the adaptations and tradeoffs I'm experiencing -- heightened visual sense and memory, strong imprinting with any merchant who treats me well despite my poor language skills, a willingness to trade lots of an easy input (in my case, travel) to avoid even a bit of the embarrassment and awkwardness of being bad at a basic life skill -- are common strategies. Because it now seems likely that the illiterate live in a world of (lowercase c) conservatism, sticking with people and places they know, branching out only slowly, moving through the world visually and socially, rather than trying to read it like a map.