I remember when I was a little kid, a few times when I got really, really bored, I’d turn to a Spanish television channel and I’d try with all of my might to just do it, to just force myself to understand Spanish. I had nothing to work with at all, besides your basic hola mi nombre es. But I’d just sit there and try to will those words to make sense in my brain. And obviously nothing was happening, but it wouldn’t stop me from holding out just a little bit of hope. I mean, these people were communicating, there had to have been a way for me to access what was going on.
It’s like, I see some Chinese text on a billboard in Flushing, or the Korean church van that passes me in traffic, it has symbols or pictographs or glyphs or whatever they’re called scrawled along the side. And a part of me still tries the same trick. Like, come on, reveal yourself to me, just tell me what you’re trying to tell everybody else.
And again, there’s nothing there. But still I can feel my brain doing its best to stare intently at the line configurations, the two characters that look familiar except for maybe a slight difference that a non-native reader wouldn’t be able to pick up. Well look at that, I just picked it out. That’s something, right? What does it mean? Why can’t I read Chinese?
It’s like, when I go upstate in the summer, I like to stare up at the stars. I can always find the Big Dipper, I’m quick to point out Orion and his belt. But after that, I’m just like, where is everything? Isn’t one of these constellations supposed to look like a crab? And while nothing’s jumping out at me immediately, after a while I start to see claws, or one claw anyway, like something kind of looks like a claw. And it’s that same automatic process, all of these imaginary lines start getting connected in my field of vision. I’m seeing hamsters and racecars and, those can’t be real, right? I mean, there’s no way ancient people would have been able to spot stuff in the sky that hadn’t been invented yet.
Or if it’s a really nice day and I’m lying out in the grass, I’ll stare up at the daytime sky and watch all of the clouds mix and mingle. Here there’s not as much pressure to find something that I know is already there. Here I can just kind of let my brain do what it does, find something where there’s probably nothing. I’ll see an old man with a beard, and after I stare at him for a while he kind of morphs into a giant bowl of fruit.
And I just can’t help but think, why do we have to learn all of this stuff? Can’t we figure out a way to program it all into our DNA? Right? It’s like, you don’t have to teach a baby how to breathe. Why do you have to teach that same baby Mandarin? Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could somehow inscribe all of those lessons right into our DNA? Think of the advantages our future babies would have if they came out of the womb already knowing how to read.
And Braille, man, I’m glad that there exists a system that allows blind people to read and write, but every once in a while I’ll be at some hotel somewhere, I see that all of the room numbers and elevator buttons have their Braille translations all embossed in metal underneath their alphabetical counterparts. And have you ever tried feeling Braille? Man, I’m sure you get better with practice, I mean, I know it works, but I don’t feel anything, it’s just a bunch of little bumps. How are you supposed to train your fingers to differentiate slight variations of the distances in between tiny little bumps?
And then, what if you do get really good at Braille? What if you’re able to slide your fingertips across a page and absorb information as fast as I’m reading with my eyes? Do your fingers get hyper sensitive? Do they start randomly trying to decode secret messages every time they grip a piece of sandpaper? Are they constantly struggling to make sense out of the nonsense bumps that constitute the skin of an avocado?
And what about Chinese blind people, do they have a different Braille than we do over here in America? What about sign language, is it its own language? Or do they have different signs for different languages? Man, I could ask questions for days. I should just look this stuff up. But I wouldn’t even know how to make any of these into searchable terms for Google. Wouldn’t it be great if we had like built-in search engines? I’d be able to do Google Translate right in my head. I guess I wouldn’t have to stare intently at Chinese billboards, futilely trying to comprehend messages that I’m simply not able to understand.