A Random Act of Recollection

Sometime during a recent visit to my mother in Los Angeles, a name popped into my head, a Chinese name: Chao Hongdao. It won’t mean anything to you and, frankly, it meant nothing to me. It was quite random because, though I’ve met many people throughout my life with Chinese names, I don’t interact with many on a regular basis. Many Chinese adopt English names to make it easier for native English speakers to remember. This name held no obvious meaning to me. It wasn’t familiar and no person came to mind associated with it. It wasn’t familiar, yet somehow it actually was.

It was certainly a real name because it wasn’t among the phrases or sentences I’d learned in the past. Indeed, I rarely use the little Chinese I grudgingly (in younger years) learned. It had one hallmark of an actual name, the typical three syllables. The first syllable, Chao, was a common enough surname, but it meant nothing to me in terms of recency of acquaintance or context.

Except there was some kind of context because the name came to mind while I was with my mother. Somehow that had significance. I surmised that my mother might know the person, perhaps a pastor. There is a well known pastor in the east coast Chinese American Christian scene who it might have been, but I wasn’t sure how I could possibly have known his Chinese name–once I learn the name of a person in English or Chinese, it’s quite uncommon for me to learn and remember the person’s name in the other language. That and I had the nagging feeling that if I mentioned the name to one particular person in my own church who would likely be familiar with the Chinese names of pastors, that person wouldn’t recognize the name.

No, I had to ask my mother. Driving with brother and mother I did. She recognized the name immediately. “Who is it?” I asked. “Oh that’s one of Daddy’s IBM co-workers. He has 3 children.” “Really?! Why on earth would I know the name of one of his co-workers?” “Oh you know him,” meaning that I probably knew him from the Chinese bible study that they were a part of back in my hometown. “Would I recognize him?” “Oh, I’m sure you would.”

That was the extent of the conversation. That mystery was solved. But it generated more mysteries. I would only have been at that bible study as a youngster. I left Endwell, NY to go to college and would likely never have been in a situation to meet this individual again. Besides that, I would never have interacted socially with him during the time when I would have been at most an adolescent. No, it was much more likely that he continued to be a important person in the lives of my parents after I left. Though they themselves moved away years later, they still returned frequently enough and might have interacted with him intimately enough to mention his name to me later in life. Even so, I couldn’t have heard his name more than a handful of times in the last 40 years since I went to college.

The brain is a remarkable organ. You might catch a scent, hear a fragment of a song, witness a image that immediately transports you back decades to another place and time. Somehow, being with my mother triggered a series of synaptic connections to generate a long unaccessed, nominally meaningful memory like the name of a barely recalled individual.

I started off this post without identifying any professional connection, but as I wrapped my head around the idea of subconscious recollection one materialized.

I’ve spent a lot of time of late teaching about the idea of Google as BFF (because it’s big, fast, and familiar, more of that in other posts). That practice has left me questioning the value of using article databases for most students’ academic writing. Because of the shallowness of their research efforts and Google’s search capabilities, the literature research of most students below the doctoral level can be satisfied using Google and Google Scholar. So I’ve been asking myself the question of why to use or even teach anything else.

The answer lies in the value of teaching knowledge preemptively. This is the premise of the educational system: teach the fundamental knowledge people need to know so that they have it when they need it. Primary school librarians need to establish the basis of information literacy to their students for secondary and higher education librarians to scaffold upon. I need to continue incorporating database usage into information literacy instruction. Information literacy as refined through database use needs to be an element of the complete individual’s abilities so that when the information need arises, the user has the information to recall.

Wouldn’t it be outstanding to have provided just the right datum for an information seeker to mentally activate–like the name of an otherwise long forgotten person–with just the right combination of stimuli to take that individual’s search process to the next level?

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