“Read” This

Nobody in America is illiterate. This is what Laura Hauser, Literacy Services Officer at the DeKalb County Public Library, tells me. In fact, she doesn’t even like to use the term illiteracy. Laura's job involves working in the library and with the community to assess literacy needs while working with library staff and partnering agencies to meet those needs. She works with immigrants, refugees, people who live in homeless shelters and transitional housing. She also works with parents, teens, children and many others whether or not they come to the library or think of themselves as library users.

“Literate is a term describing a wide spectrum. If you understand what a stop sign means and you stop, which you will probably do even if you don't know how to read English, then you’re ‘reading’ that stop sign by responding to it appropriately. This is similar to the way young children absorb language skills. So where does reading start and stop?”

To “read”, to be “literate”—what do these words mean? Being able to navigate and use a supermarket without being overwhelmed by the choices, packaging, advertising, and labels, does this skill also not qualify under the term “literacy”? Are we using words that are more harmful to our understanding of the situation than they are useful?

There are many kinds of literacy—technological literacy, health literacy, numerical literacy, even cultural literacy. Someone who can read and write well may not know how to surf the Internet, and vice versa. Someone who knows who the poet Homer is may not know who Homer Simpson is. In some contexts of our changing cultural climate, it may be just as important to know the latter as it is to know the former. Literacy is about having the necessary skills to function in society. This includes not only knowing the language but understanding the many intricate and often subtle ways we communicate.

“Saying literacy has something to do with reading is like saying cancer has something to do with smoking. There are so many types of cancer, and so many causes. So while on one level the statement is true, it’s about as limited an understanding as you can have.”

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Sometimes I forget this, but I’m an immigrant myself. I came to the States from Hong Kong when I was four, so the transition was easy. I always assumed it was just as easy for my parents. As a child, you assume your parents know everything, but this is obviously not the case. I remember every day my father would pick me up from school and ask me to tell him one English word I had learned that day. Perhaps it was as much for his sake as it was for mine.

“When we first immigrated, I harbored a very negative attitude,” my father tells me now. “I was always suspicious that I was getting taken advantage of, or that everybody was out to get me.”

We had moved to Hot Springs, Arkansas. We were in the middle of nowhere and had no community to speak of. For two years, my father enumerated the ways Hong Kong was superior to the States. And that is—in every way. Everything struck him as inferior to the ways back home. But by the third year, something changed. My father remembers, “I realized that if I was going to stay here, I would have to open up and look at things more objectively. I began to see both the positive and negative aspects of American culture as well as the positive and negative aspects of my own culture.” Some of the positive things about the United States that my father listed ranged from something as small as being able to take goods back to the store for a refund (a totally foreign concept in Hong Kong), to the fact that Americans seemed culturally more open-minded. He also told me that education is better in the United States. I’ve heard that argument before, but having gone through the system myself, I begged to differ. Public education standards are much higher in Hong Kong, I argued. But here is his reply:

“There’s a difference between higher standards of education and better education. For example, if you take an American scientist and a Chinese scientist, it's very likely that the American would have pursued science out of his own self-interest and passion. The Chinese scientist might have operated at least partially out of social pressure. It’s a different frame of mind. Culturally, this means that the Chinese will eventually reach a certain plateau, one that would be difficult to transcend.”

Laura tells me a similar story. She says the United States is historically made up of many people for whom at some point the willingness to experience change and attempt an adventure is more important than staying in a common cultural community or maintaining a traditional self identity. People who have the skills necessary to exercise those qualities, and who choose to exercise them, can find a place here more easily than those who are not so inclined or who prefer a different set of cultural values. These are the practical facts of life in this country. The Federal Government has its own definition of literacy, and that’s the one that counts when it comes to funding: to read, write, and speak English, and do numeracy at the level needed to sustain yourself.

“That last phrase is what makes it so inherently American,” Laura says. “Poverty in America is linked to the inability to sustain yourself and is therefore closely tied to literacy issues and efforts. This idea of sustaining yourself is different than the kinds of things people might hear more about from other countries—like being part of a community, knowing your place, or accepting your cultural identity.”