Well, I'm as recovered from my cold as I was able to get, and it is time to go. I am setting off for a trip to what everyone (following Europe) calls the Far East. (For Californians it is clearly the far west.) I head first to Hong Kong, for a few days during which I will be giving at least four lectures, and a panel session, and various other meetings (this really is not leisure time). And there is just one thing that really, really scares me about it. Perhaps you can guess.
I am really scared of that feeling of being a total illiterate. You see, I unfortunately learned to read while I was three. So I simply have no memories of a stage in life when I was not able to read — to puzzle out every piece of script I saw. Some people have memories of being intelligent people who hadn't mastered reading yet. I don't. I could always read English. Later I learned a bit of various European languages, and mastered the Greek alphabet, and a bit of Cyrillic, and I have even studied the Korean writing system a little, so almost everywhere I have ever been I can at least read the street signs, and pronounce the headlines in the newspapers (even if I can't translate them), and choose items from a menu with some hopes of knowing what I'm doing.
The major exceptions are Japan and China. I have been to Japan already, and I felt the chill of illiteracy fear as soon as I arrived. I cannot make head or tail out of written Japanese. And Chinese is worse. In countries using writing systems this complex, I am a baby once again. I have to be led around by minders, and if they ever let go of my hand I panic. I once got lost 200 yards from my hotel in Tokyo. Without the textual labels I couldn't recognize a single street. My minders have to look out for me, find me, take me to the lecture room, and choose my food for me. I feel so vulnerable.
Think of me, Language Log readers. Pray for me, if you have religious contact with a god who responds to your prayerful activities and covers the Far East. I am going out there to be an utter, babyish, blundering illiterate for nine days. There are Language Log regulars like Bill Poser and Victor Mair who could have helped me if they were coming too, but they were not free. I will be out there alone, an ashamed illiterate adult facing the horror of a universe of ideograms, every shop window sign (like the fabled message from a postmodernist mafia don in the old joke) making me an offer I can't understand.
[I know, I know, the characters are not really ideograms, in the strict sense of being single-symbol depictions of concepts; one or two commenters point this out below. But the point is that for me, it makes no difference whether they are or not. They are unintelligible to me. They are a communicative medium that I cannot penetrate at all.]