IMG_20150529_182649“Mom, this salt is green.” Evan was helping me make dinner, and had just opened a new bag of salt. He was making a weird face as he peered inside. “And it smells like fish.”

I grabbed the bag, wondering what in the world I had purchased. We are still getting to know our new neighborhood, which means I can’t just grab the same brands I was used to in Guangxi. I remembered that the bag said 碘盐 ‘iodized salt’ in Chinese. (I am kinda proud that I can read ‘iodine’ in Chinese, y’all.)

Looking closer, I realized that the froofy, swirling characters above those words were probably not just part of the brand’s logo. To my horror, I saw that first character was 螺 luo, which means “snail.”

Oh, blessed invertebrates, what have I done? Powdered snail salt?!?

This is not the first time this has happened to me, and I’m confident it won’t be the last. >> I live in a sea of Chinese characters, some whom I’ve been friends with for a long time, some whom I’ve just met, and some who are still complete strangers to me. <<

Not being able to read 100% of the written world around me has flubbed me up more than once.

There was the time I bought black pepper and ginger flavored brown sugar instead of just regular ol’ brown sugar. My first reaction was WHY ON GOD’S GREEN EARTH WOULD THEY SELL THIS? Cookies ruined.

Over time, I learned about using it to make a special chicken stew for new moms, and found that black pepper-ginger-brown sugar goes great in this one German pork dish I make. (Cookies still ruined, though.)


Hand lotion or conditioner? What’s your guess?

There were those times where I was standing in the shampoo aisle, with other customers fake-shopping next to me, eagerly watching to see what the foreigner would choose, confident that I was going to lead the way to the best of the best. Invariably, whichever brand I put in my cart would immediately end up in theirs. (I really should have asked Pantene for a commission.) Little did they know that I was just desperately looking for a bottle with some clue – maybe a picture of a girl with shiny hair? – that this was actually shampoo, not body wash, not lotion, not Nair.

And there were all those times that, had it not been for a friendly neighbor or stranger, we would have missed the warning notices about water being turned off all day, or pesticides being sprayed outside our window, or the bus being re-routed, or, or, or. So very many things require the ability to read.

And so, being in China has given me a window into what it’s like to be an illiterate adult. Not being able to read is really limiting. My life used to take far more advance planning and reliance on teachers, friends, and neighbors, and I’m guessing that’s true for anyone who is illiterate.

According to UNESCO, 775 million adults in the world today are functionally illiterate. I wonder how much they have to look for a girl with shiny hair on packaging, or rely on the kindness of strangers to figure out which floor the clinic is on. I wonder how much they stick to established routes and routines to avoid needing to read street signs and subway maps.

Me? I’m one of the lucky ones. I can now read a decent amount of Chinese, and it makes my life easier. If the store is out of my normal toothpaste, I can pick out a different kind without accidentally getting green tea flavor (except that I did exactly that last week). I can read the text message telling me that my phone is almost out of money. When I go out with my kids, I don’t worry about which bus to take – I can read the route information at the bus stop.

Still, I’m not 100% literate for Chinese. Still who-knows-how-many more characters to go. So, I’m sure I will keep buying weird toothpaste and weird salt.

Speaking of the green, fishy salt: I already knew 螺 meant ‘snail,’ but as I entered that character into my phone’s dictionary, I was reminded it can also mean ‘spiral.’ The entire phrase 螺旋藻 luo xuan zao means ‘spirulina,’ a type of algae. I guess I can be forgiven for not knowing that one.

So, salt with added iodine and spirulina. Now I know. And I’m two more characters closer to being fully literate.

Americans drive on the left and other truths I’ve learned

5 hours or 109 miles, whichever comes first

How many foreigners does it take to change a light bulb?