Understanding Low-Literacy Cultures: My Living History Tea Experiment

Understanding Low-Literacy Cultures: My Living History Tea Experiment February 20, 2015

[HEALTH TEA] Korea Food Walnut Almond Job's Tears Tea 18g X 100t 호두 아몬드 율무차
You can tell this tea contains no harmful additives because the lady on the box is smiling.
I’m home sick today with something normal for a change, sore throat, which means I have to get into the box of Korean teas a friend of mine keeps me supplied in, because I have awesome friends this way.

So here’s something: I never really understoood low-literacy cultures.  I’d read about kings who could barely read, or not at all, and I’d scratch my head and think, “Um, how does that work?  I mean, what did he do with his library card?”  When I’d think about people going through life not reading there was this kind of bubble in my brain that would cause those thoughts to slip off to the margins, because people not reading is like people not eating, or breathing, or taking long hot showers.  Unthinkable.  My brain doesn’t think about these things.

And then I made this friend, and she travels to Korea (and other places) for work, and she’s both adventurous and generous, and that means I get the neatest souvenirs ever.  Because she is very brave, some of these souvenirs are the edible kind.

It turns out people in Korea sometimes, but not always, put a little bit of English on their tea packets.  Sometimes there’s just a picture to assist the ignorant ones from afar.  Sometimes the packet has a color, like yellow, and some Korean words, and no English or picture at all.  Even when there is English (it’s always English, if anything, but I could decipher most of the European languages if it came to it), there’s not nearly the amount of information I’m used to getting on American packaging.

Now there is nothing at all — nothing — stopping me from learning to read Korean.  I meet every possible requirement for the task.  I just don’t care.

It turns out you can just pick out a tea and drink it, and it’ll be fine.  After a while, you get to where you remember what the different packets contain, and you can have a pretty good idea of what you’re drinking.  My husband buys noodles and soups from the Burmese grocery, seaweed and stuff from the mass-market head shop, and it’s the same thing: You get to know the products by how they look.  You find the little arrow that is the universal “open here” symbol, and really that’s all you need to know.

Illiteracy is the hot thing for the armchair-cosmopolitan set, it turns out.

Spend enough time realizing how much there is to learn and to know without reading, how much you can verify using your sense and experience, and suddenly the decisions of ancient kings and peasants seem perfectly reasonable.  Words, after all, are deceptive.  Take them, if you are going to take them, with a healthy dose of skepticism.  And anyway, who needs letters to know how to win a battle or cook dinner?


Image courtesy of Amazon.com, where you can buy tea that is very similar to one of my favorite ones. Or so I am led to believe by the pictures and scant descriptions.

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