It was quite a revelation when my friend, Flame, commented that we are functional illiterates. Here we are intelligent women, degreed educators who have raised children, maintain our own finances and who love to read. Yet, we are functionally illiterate in this society. Flame has been here longer than I and she can communicate basic needs and I believe she can read some characters. Neither of us can read, write or compute in this society above a 4th grade level.

I hate getting local train tickets because there are no numbers or English writing on them that I can read and I don’t know how to ask for tickets for the other trains. I usually remember to ask “Time?” and the ticket agent with write the time on the back for me. When I make a purchase at 7-11, I usually know the order of the questions and can tell them I want my food heated and that I don’t need a bag. After I request my ‘dom bing’ at the breakfast shop, I have no idea what the clerk is asking me and I just shrug. My students come into my classroom excited and eager to share some news, but I shrug and say “English, English!” They’ve heard me say one or two words (words mind you, not sentences!) in Mandarin and I think they think I’m catching on!

Because I don’t know they language, people watch out for me as if I’m a child. I certainly appreciate it, but I’m finding ways to cope, in many of the same ways people in any society do who cannot read or write. Yet, like them, I remain on the fringes of society unable to attain a full level of participation in the events that surround me. I have no idea what events occur in my school outside the classroom routine. I only know the names of three streets in this city and am unable to direct anyone to my home. I’ve had the phone I’ve been lent converted to English and I’ve stocked it with names and phone numbers of people all over this country. Every time I meet someone who is fairly fluent in English, they give me their name and number so that I can call them for help. Illiteracy allows no room for independence. Ah, the power of reading! of information! of language!