When I was small, my father would read to me almost every night. For a while, Hop on Pop by Dr. Suess was my absolute favorite book. I made my father read it it to me so often that I had it memorized. Once I crept up on my unsuspecting father and jumped on his belly. To my delight, he used the same booming voice as he did during story time, “Stop! You must not hop on pop!” I don’t think I dared to try it twice. Shortly before my fourth birthday, I made a miraculous discovery. Somehow, it seemed rather sudden to me at the time, I knew which word in the book was “hop”. I knew which was “brown”. I knew them all, not just in my head, but on the page too. I went running into the next room to show my mom, who had patiently taught me the alphabet and the sounds of letters. I announced that I could read, for real this time, and proved it by picking out words from random in the book (a feat I had been unable to perform when I had simply memorized the words). In the days that followed, I would noisily call out the words that I recognized from roadsigns, cereal boxes, or any other material that came before my eyes. Hop on Pop was my Rosetta Stone.
I’ve enjoyed reading for almost three decades now, so it was a surprise to wake up and discover that I was illiterate. I’ve been traveling in Japan and China most of the past two weeks. Everywhere I went, I was surrounded by unfamiliar markings that I was powerless to decipher. It was a new experience for me. I couldn’t even figure out bus schedules or subway maps. Illiteracy is a frustrating experience.
My husband worked in China as an English teacher for six months and has some rudimentary knowledge of Chinese. One day on a bus, he began to explain to me the meanings of some of the characters he recognized. One of the words he showed me was a word for university, comprised of two characters, one meaning “big” and the other meaning “study” or “learn”: 大學. It wasn’t quite a Hop on Pop experience for me, but I no longer felt powerless to decipher the markings around me. I began to see “big” everywhere. I begged for more. I learned the characters for “water” and “car” and I was quite proud of myself when I figured out the character for person from studying the weight restriction in an elevator. I can’t read Chinese and I can only pronounce two or three words right now, but I haven’t been so excited about learning something since that day long ago when figured out which word was “hop” and which was “pop”.