I had no way of really truly imagining what it means to be illiterate until I moved to Shanghai.
Even today, my spoken chinese is strictly transactional (He Whom I'm Trailing's equation is that we speak chinese about as well as our Korean dry cleaner in the States speaks English) and no matter how long I stare down those lovely Chinese characters, rarely do they give it up and resolve themselves into comprehension. Out of the 3,000 characters that it takes to read the newspaper, on a really good day, & it really does come and go, I can read 150. Doesn't get you far.
Those first weeks & months in Shanghai, every trip to buy a cleaning product became an adventure of deciphering the clues... dishwashing liquid, toilet bowl cleaner, bleach, floor cleaner: same shelf, similar package, if there ain't a picture...
And then this slightly sinister looking, jaundiced cat! Not exactly Hello Kitty.
|Photo credit for open drawer: Lisa Movius|
But at least there were dishes drawn towards the base of the bottle. The product within was thin & just barely sudsy. When things got grubby in public places, I'd think: they're as clean as Chinese cleaning products can get them. And then I learned from a real Old China Hand, there since the 80's, that when White Cat (as the characters say in Chinese: but he's yellow! Even when you can read the characters...) came on the market, it was considered a high-end, expensive brand.White Cat was destined, it was clear, to disappear....
This wasn't the first drawer that I made but it was the drawer that the made the idea of a Cabinet of Chinese Curiosities finally coalesce. Me, the foreigner, watching Shanghai change so quickly, always anticipating my next favorite-thing-that-vanished-overnight. Stowing some notion of it away in the cabinet in a kind of a hedge against that loss, nostaglia-in-advance.
I miss that mean ol' cat.
|Drawer 7. 4: White Cat bottle, blue hose, cardboard, chinese brocade |
Photo credit: Bruno David;
Photo credit for open drawer before the jump: Lisa Movius