I have been in Nanjing almost a week now, teaching English composition in the mornings and, until today, sleeping in the afternoons because my body could not wrap its little brain around the idea of being 12 hours off its normal schedule. I would get back from class by hook or by crook (Southeast University’s new campus south of Nanjing is enormous and mostly unfilled by buildings, like a campus built on spec, and it’s probably a mile of walking from the hotel where I’m staying to the class where I’m teaching), and I would fall right into this nice hard bed with the clean, starchy sheets and soft coverlet. And sleep and sleep.
Yesterday I began to reckon with the fact that my time here in Nanjing is very limited. I will only be here a couple of weeks. Nanjing is a historic city with loads to see, and I had not seen anything except the great wall of curtains in my room for several days. Two kind friends had taken me on previous outings, but I was growing restless. I wanted to toddle out on my baby legs into the city.
But at the same time that I wanted to go out, I also feared going out, and for one really big reason.
I’m illiterate here. I can’t read “Do not enter” signs. I can’t read “Toilet” signs. I can’t read “Restaurant open” signs, and I most certainly cannot read either menus or directions. The simplest kind of reading, the kind that saves your life, is what I can’t do.
I can’t read anything that’s not in Chinglish or English.
My dependency on Roman letters is demoralizing. I look at Chinese characters–or even Pinyin, the Roman-character version of Chinese words–and I see nothing but pretty curves. I am as dumb as a potato.
Nevertheless, I persisted. (I really like Elizabeth Warren, forgive me.) I mentioned my desire to penetrate downtown Nanjing–nearly 50 minutes away in traffic–to my co-teacher, Jingning, a very helpful Chinese woman who studied in Arizona and got her Ph.D there. She helped me find a taxi after I taught my class, accompanied me to the spot, and then at my insistence took another cab to her own home. I really wanted to try myself in this environment.
Actually, the street where she left me was about as safe as a place could be, a quarter for shopping and sightseeing, closed to traffic. I was the only Westerner I saw during the afternoon. It’s a family place. I couldn’t read anything and here it didn’t matter. The most threatening thing was the heaviness of the heat.
I walked only a little while before coming to a place where you could buy one ticket, about $8, for admission to the Confucian Fuzi Temple and to the Imperial Examination museum. This little girl was posing proudly with a statue of Confucius outside the temple.
People were kind to me, the human potato. They dug a few words of English out of their pockets to help me buy a rice dumpling, a scarf, or to help me find my way in the subterranean scholars’ museum. In the museum, girl guards, especially, seemed to smile at me tentatively moving around from display to display on sore feet. One shyly asked if she could join my friends’ network, WeChat, so she could practice her English with me from afar, later, after I am half a world away.
The things I bought are things, like things anyplace are things. The people I saw are people, like people anyplace are people. Kindness is kindness. Smiles look exactly the same. Eyes sparkle with pleasure exactly the same way. My potato-like qualities fell away, at least for a little while.
Now this is not to say that reading doesn’t matter, that literacy doesn’t matter. After all, I was in a place that for 1500 years or more devoted itself to the pursuit of scholarship and the nurture of learning. But here, what I felt was that scholarship itself is protected and cupped in the hand of a people who respect how hard it is and who are willing to give public resources to its development and who feel themselves to be enriched by it, even if they themselves are not scholars.
I’ll be writing about this more. The contrast with what’s going on in my own poor benighted nation could not be more painful.