The Chinese language phrase book I picked up in my first week in the city of Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province, People’s Republic of China, asserts in a blurb on the back cover that travelers to China experience “instant illiteracy” and certainly this was a significant aspect of my first extended stay in that country. I have never before visited a place where I not only did not speak the language but also could not even sound out and guess at the meaning of signs, menus, ads in hotel rooms and the like. I was painfully aware of my dependence on the available pinyin and English language signage, and found it particularly frustrating when street signs used English translation “West Ring Road” while the map I had purchased included only pinyin spelling of the Chinese language name. The day I attempted my first solo trip on the city bus system, and overshot my stop, I became quite reliant on the features on the map which were legible to me, particularly water features as I was fortunately alongside a canal leading to the north end of a large lake.
The experience of being lost is not new to me. I joke that I am one of the few folks I know who can get lost in a one-street Lahu village, and the joke has its basis in experience. I am simply not well oriented to the visually-accessed physical world and my sense of space does not seem to line up with that of others I know. As a result of having spent big chunks of my life lost — as a child in stores, pastures and cornfields, as an undergraduate on the campus of a large state university, and as an adult in many venues in the US, Europe, Asia…– I am fairly adept at finding a silver lining in the experience. In this case I was taking a series of buses from the airport to my hotel and I’d missed the connecting stop, riding to the end of the route and needing to backtrack. The canal running along the road was an extension of a park that lies on the northern tip of the lake, and the sylvan setting was quite pleasant. I was carrying two packs, one on my back and the other in front, and felt quite capable of walking all the way to my hotel. I took a bit of time to enjoy being able to stretch my legs and relax after the trip from Chiangmai through Bangkok to Kunming which had begun with a taxi ride to the airport at 5:30AM.
Despite the pleasure of the walk, I was explicitly aware of the ways in which the landscape around me was not quite legible to me. I could not, for example, accurately “read” a bus stop from a distance, and so approached a number of advertising signs expecting to see bus time tables. The experience reinforced my understanding of the terrible costs of illiteracy in an urban setting, since only my knowledge of cities and transit more generally and my sense of my own capabilities, along with map reading skills honed over decades using a variety of maps and the fact that the map I had was in fact quite legible to me, kept me from giving up on reaching my destination or flagging down a taxi and turning a 3 yuan trip into a 30 yuan trip. The value of literacy as a skill, something I’ve thought about a lot since it is a topic of my research, was further reinforced by this experience, as was my sense of my marginal status as a person who was not fully literate.
This status ran parallel to my status as a “foreigner” or “foreign friend”, someone with the resources to travel halfway around the world, confident of my ability to find places to eat and sleep and assistance in getting from place to place. It challenged my understanding of myself as a member of the class of people who possess writing.
I normally do my research in northern Thailand. I speak, read and write Thai in addition to Lahu, the language of the people whose lives I explore and describe. This summer, however, I visited the home of the majority of Lahu people in the world. I would love to have been able to speak Chinese during the visit, but for my research this was not necessary. I was able to communicate with relative ease with Lahu speakers in Yunnan. My Lahu research assistant helped me negotiate my way through the bureaucratic thickets which required Chinese language ability, and sometimes reiterated my questions when Lahu speakers found them difficult to understand (I think that in some cases having Lahu come from my mouth seems so unlikely that some Lahu speakers simply assume they can’t understand what I’ve said. And I have been told that I have a Lahu Nyi accent, while in China I was speaking to those whose dialect is Lahu Na or Lahu Shi.) I firmly intend to acquire at least some Mandarin before I return to China in the summer of 2011 – right now I can make a simple greeting and a simple farewell, explain that I don’t speak Mandarin, tell someone I don’t understand what they are saying, request water in either a glass or a bottle, and ask the location of toilet facilities. And I can make Mandarin speakers laugh, which I think of as an important accomplishment. This summer’s experience was invaluable, however, and I have absolutely no regrets about approaching China without a command of Chinese.
Another difference I noticed between my experience in China and my experience in Thailand was that in Thailand when I am at a restaurant or bar serving Western food (and offering internet connections!) I am generally one of the minority of farang or Westerners who speaks Thai. I am able to help folks who are having difficulty making their meaning clear when they move away from the standard English scripts most familiar to the waitstaff. In China, on the other hand, at least in the places I frequented with my little netbook, I was in the minority of Westerners who did NOT speak Chinese. Not only was I in need of the sort of help that in Thailand I generally offer, I was also the exception rather than one of the larger herd. Thus, when the travel agent I was meeting at a coffee shop had difficulty understanding the structure of my name (I have two middle names), he took my passport out into the street in front of the coffee shop (much to my shock) and asked a Western passerby, in Chinese, what my surname was.
Being in the minority and requiring interpreting help was a bit disconcerting, and got me thinking about the role of the casual interpreter in such settings. In my experience it is relatively simple to find, and to be, a casual interpreter in social settings in tourist areas in northern Thailand and in Yunnan, China. Wherever there are Western travelers, there are Westerners who have acquired the local language and who can be called upon to help those who have not untangle simple, short-term sorts of communicative difficulty. As a potential casual interpreter, I often find myself poised and ready when I hear someone near me struggling, but that may be my own personality and not simply a factor of the role. The role, or the practice, is seductive to me because of it’s “look Ma, no hands” nature – it is the ultimate in showing off, as it costs and risks almost nothing (you don’t do this in medical emergencies, you do this over questions of whether or not there will be ice in a drink, or if it is possible to get a dish made in a particular way, or whether a particular ingredient is part of a particular dish) and allows people to be amazed at how well you speak X, whether or not they have any basis for accurate assessment. So especially because my Thai is not at all the fluent and flawless Thai I would like it to be, it is psychologically reassuring to be able to produce and understand meaningful utterances on behalf of someone who has no Thai at all. There is also a sense in which the casual interpreter is demonstrating their possession of valuable linguistic capital (a concept I get from French social scientist Pierre Bourdieu). The wallet of the casual interpreter happens to be full of just the right currency, and flashing a bit of it can feel pretty good. This currency can’t be stolen, and gains its value in the interaction in which the casual interpreter does effortlessly what the person for whom they are interpreting cannot.
I hope that the folks who became my own casual interpreters felt a similar sense of satisfaction as they helped me with my occasional communications difficulties. To access their assistance, however, required a communicative competence which I enjoy because of my privileged access to a wide variety of resources. Negotiating my way through a semi-legible terrain, both social and physical, I relied heavily on a variety of sorts of knowledge and skill, and certainly also on access to funds. Now back at my university, I work to keep fresh in my mind the sense of being in need of an interpreter and unable to “read” my surroundings or make sense of messages, an experience which I think my students may have in the classroom. I’d like to be able to help out occasionally, and to be especially patient when they get lost, and I hope I can help them learn to enjoy the experience and seek out opportunities to get lost again. I have learned an awful lot that way.