How to experience selective illiteracy on your travels

Two washing machines, one with instructions in Korean, the other in English

Two washing machines with instructions in Korean. Thank goodness one has English translations.

Travellers do it on purpose
travel to places
where we don’t speak a word
except for thank you and goodbye
and we can’t decipher a word
or syllable or logogram
so we can’t use a washing machine
and must depend on the kindness
of literate
articulate strangers.

Kind staff have tagged
a washing machine
with English words
like temperature
dust mite removal
pour detergent here
and twice.

My age cohort was dubbed
The Silent Generation
which makes me laugh
except at times like this.
I welcome
this blindness to words
and deafness to meaning
I choose
this voluntary ignorance.
It strips away the buzz
and flutters up the mind.
While I cannot use or hear
my mother tongue
I float
in a silent retreat
and if and when I meet
a crowd of English speakers
I gush
and gush and gabble
and suddenly
it’s all about me.

Travel note and photo by Rachel McAlpine at the Seoul Art Space—Yeonhui. Please comment or share if you feel that way inclined.  


11 thoughts on “How to experience selective illiteracy on your travels

  1. Have you got google translate working fully Rachel… so love the function where you hold the phone over words and English pops up. Although lovelier to chat with human helpers instead where possible. Off to Japan tomorrow… will be having similar language adventures. Myra x

    1. Myra how lovely! Enjoy Japan. We do have great tools but perversely that is not what I want. Sometimes I need the wordless experience.

  2. joel says:

    I know this feeling of illiteracy and helplessness, not being able to read roadsigns or taking all afternoon to try to translate one paragraph of newsprint. Then, when in your home land again, as soon as you’re in the airport, the feeling of strength and literacy and knowledge kicks in with double power — all that was unconscious before is suddenly foreground!

    1. It gives us empathy for those who live with functional illiteracy, day after day.

  3. Dan Antion says:

    Appliances are too complicated. There should be a green button that say “Start” in all languages.

    I’m glad someone though to mark them.

    1. I need one in my brain. Except I do like not understanding sometimes, a sort of surrender. I doubt anyone else feels that way.

  4. A wonderful reminder that English is not a universal language. Funny, I never thought about washing machines!

    1. I like being reminded that true illiteracy affects almost every aspect of daily life and the course of life. We need literacy in our own language even to use the apps that translate…

  5. Elizabeth says:

    In a great irony, my washer is from South Korea and uses a lot of symbols which I have trouble decoding! Enjoy the times of silence.

  6. Jean says:

    I’m sure you remember your sabbatical in Seoul in wonder and nostalgia now.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I do indeed!