A brush with illiteracy

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Prayer boards hang with assorted messages, but if you aren't familiar with the language, they are mostly just pieces of mysteries.

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Reading legends at various sites can be a challenge, puzzle or just an object of frustration.

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Puzzles and more puzzles greet the illiterate visitor to China, where the characters mean even a search for cognates will not bear fruit.

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I might not consume books at the pace of a John Grisham fan with an iPad, but I have always loved to read.

While I am fluent in English, my foreign language skills have always been pretty poor, despite having taking numerous classes in French, Spanish, and even German over the years.

Yet, even when faced with a page of nearly incomprehensible French or Spanish, familiar letters, sounds and words would jump out at me. Sometimes, I could even read and pronounce a word that was totally foreign.

It was a good feeling, but deciphering foreign words in languages such as these was easy compared to what it would be like in China.

My trip to the Far East back in March came only a few days after I finished reading a book for class entitled "The Teacher Who Couldn't Read," about the life of John Cocoran - a teacher and real-estate investor who struggled with almost total illiteracy until retirement.

Until reading that book, I had no real idea what it mean to be illiterate, to look at a page of text and feel utterly helpless and totally confused, and even after reading the book I still only had second-hand knowledge.

That changed after I spent just over a week in Beijing.

It is hard for any experience in a foreign country to make a lasting difference when it's only about nine groggy, jet-lagged days in a cramped hotel room under a smog-laden sky, but my encounter with Mandarin provided me with a shocking look at what it feels like to be illiterate - to stare embarrassingly at a piece of paper or a street sign with all the clarity of a basset hound trying to read the ingredient list on the back of his dog food sack.

Even the English in China was difficult to understand at times.

We saw a sign on a lone concrete stair that said, "Watch That Step," and a highway billboard that said, "More Haste, Less Speed."

One morning, my friend Bradley and I stood just northeast of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, trying to find an English sign for the tourist bus that was supposed to take us to the Great Wall and the Ming dynasty tombs for a relatively cheap price.

After being hounded and hustled from one corner to the next by eager and slightly dodgy self-employed tour guides, we encountered a lady with a high tolerance for nicotine and a surprisingly low tolerance for paying customers.

She repeated the word "Badaling," which we recognized as referring to a section of the Great Wall, and once we understood each other we began asking her about traveling to the Ming dynasty tombs.

She repeated the phrase back to us in English in what we should have realized was far too quick and with little to no understanding of the actual meaning of the words.

She shoved a ticket and receipt under our noses which, considering how little Mandarin we were able to read, could have been a contract for our lifelong servitude. It was not quite that bad, but it was not exactly what we had hoped for - not in the least.

After a short wait in the bus, we were whisked out of Beijing and north into the mountains.

While we drove through one generic suburb into the next, my glance locked on the passing sights that hurtled by my grimy window.

I grew dizzy from trying to read the signs above store windows and my stomach started to turn, although to be fair that could have been from the winding road, or the smell of the 2-year-old child pooping into a towel in front of me.

Our time at the Great Wall was incredible, despite being frustratingly short, probably something that was written on the ticket, and much to our dismay we never even went to the Ming tombs.

Instead, we were bused around the greater Beijing area to grocery store after grocery store, with a group of middle-aged women buying candy and turkey meat in bulk - something else we were probably warned about in the unreadable fine print.

I'm not sure what was worse, the feeling of being illiterate or unwillingly joining a crowd of Chinese women on a six-hour Costco run.

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