Thursday, October 12th, 2017...12:51 pmchoc

Learning to Read

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I learned how to read at around 3, no big deal. When I started being able to read in sentences, my dad made a big stink over how my mom bought a thousand dollars worth of books.

Although I’d had a complete grasp of reading by age 5, literacy and being able to read was still a huge issue for me: at age 7, I’d left home for a year abroad in Newark while my parents worked as visiting professors of NJIT. Although I was familiar with the alphabet and had a small vocabulary in English, I’d never really learned to read in anything other than Korean. I started by learning how to hear: leading up to the trip, my mom would stay up past midnight to record broadcasts of cartoons and childrens’ TV on VHS during satellite livecasts of foreign channels. Eventually, the cartoons of magic busses turned into picture books, which turned into story books, which turned into chapter books—still of magic busses. I learned chapter books first by listening to audiobooks first, although I’d never stay awake past the first few chapters.

Even though I learned how to read short books, I’d never learned how to read everything else: the western world, the signs, the streets, the people. I was never able to hold a conversation or know when people were talking to me. (auditory processing issues make me extremely sensitive to noises and sounds but not to words and conversations)

With this hostile environment isolating me, I isolated myself further through reading. My social skills: ability to read people and situations, social anxiety got worse with this isolation; all I did was read. That never really changed when I came back, or when I went back, and when I came back a second time. I was always in the corner of the social hierarchy: the weird kid, the queer kid, the mentally ill kid. And I chose to keep myself there, through reading.

But soon, the coping mechanism became a passion. I started thinking and enjoying the experience as more than just a way to escape. I started speaking out in english class, making connections. My escape from reality was a door that opens from both sides: an escape back into it.

Reading and thinking and talking about what I’ve read and what I’m reading is no longer a tool for me to distance myself, but a tool that helps me face the reality of the world around me, to connect further with it.

At age 16, I had finally learned to read; and I’m still learning how every day.


  •   Rachel Lockwood
    October 13th, 2017 at 10:06 pm

    Hey Cho! Thank you for sharing such a personal and thought-provoking story. Your journey to learn to read was different from mine in structure but similar in end goal. I also used reading as a means to escape from my world for a little bit, though not to the same extent that you did. I liked that you said reading became something that opened two doors of escape for you- one to escape from reality and one to escape to reality. It was a good reminder for myself to think about why I read and enjoy reading today, and I’m glad that you helped me to remind myself that reading can help to make connections in my present life as well- not just the imaginary one that I like to escape to. I’m glad reading manifested into what it is for you today. Thanks for sharing!

  •   Professor Seiler
    October 14th, 2017 at 11:12 am

    Cho, thank you for this moving post. It strikes me that you early on had a sense of literacy as much bigger than being able to read and write–even in two languages. I wonder how you think about the writing side of this idea now: do you experience yourself as *writing* your own life or story, or your impressions of others, the same way that you *read* them?

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