What Signing Means to Me by Matt Lim

I grew up in a small village where the word “Diversity” doesn’t exist. I mean, I’m sure people have heard of the word, but without a frame of reference – sort of the reverse of that myth that the Inuits have over 50 different words for ‘snow’. I’m exaggerating, of course, but only a little bit. As a mixed heritage person of East Asian descent, and also born Hard of Hearing (HoH), I was always Different.


My parents – both medical, by the way – had apparently no idea that I could hear virtually nothing out of one ear. The way I would stop in the middle of the street and twirled around to take stock of my environment, or the way I would stare at people’s lips as they spoke were presumably chalked up to my idiosyncrasies (of which I had many more). It was merely a curiosity that the landline would ring but there would be no-one on the other end, so I would hang up. After a few years of this, my mum stopped me before I could replace the receiver, listened carefully, then held it to my other ear. At which point, I realised that there had been someone trying to speak all along. Hopefully it was nothing important.


My dad (and I realise this doesn’t reflect well on him professionally, but he’s retired now, so whatever) took a little more convincing, such was the efforts I had unknowingly taken to cover up my deafness. He took me to a busy restaurant and, when he was sure he had my attention, mouthed the question “how old are you?” To which my indignant response: “I’m five, Dad!” served as confirmation that not only could I lipread, I could do it very well, and had been passing as Hearing my entire life. To fit in.


It occurs to me now, as an adult, that being Different is not a bad thing to identify as. But it is an identity (and that’s why I’ve capitalised it). But when youre young, the urge to fit in – to not be noticed – is a survival technique. Nobody wants to be Different, the weird kid. Not that I had too much difficulty at school, although there were sometimes questions around my concentration level, as I would often have to turn my head to take in my surroundings and make sure my “good” ear was facing the right direction. Which sometimes meant I missed information. But I coped. Those teachers who were aware of my deafness made allowances, but I doubt many of them knew. The school offered special exam arrangements, but why put them to all that trouble? Better – less embarrassing, at least – to keep your head down and fit in. When you get older, of course, you start to embrace what makes you Different. You want to stand out against a tide of conformity. Eventually, you stop defining yourself as Different at all, because you stop comparing yourself to others. That’s what I’m aiming for.


At University I lost more of my hearing; for those interested, it was complications following a bout of mumps. (Mumps is occasionally known as the “kissing disease” but I assure you, you can get it other ways too). I studied Modern Languages; I have always been endlessly fascinated by other languages, their literature and their culture. I speak several languages fluently, and several more non-fluently. None of them is Cantonese, nor any other East Asian language for that matter, nor British Sign Language. I grew up in an oral, Hearing culture. More than that, I grew up in a Little England culture where the goal was to deny what makes you Different, to – you guessed it – fit in.


Nowadays I am learning BSL, as well as both Cantonese and Mandarin in my free time. I live in a multicultural city, where I can simultaneously mingle with many different groups, whilst maintaining a sense of pride about who I am and where I’ve come from. I have friends from many different demographics, including the Deaf community, with whom I can interact and share stories outside of the classroom. And although I still harbour traces of Imposter Syndrome – I am not fully Deaf, for example, nor is my signing proficient – nobody seems to mind. I fit in, and I fit in well.


If this has been a long and winding article to get to the point, it’s because it’s been a long and winding journey to get to this stage. It’s fragmented, because I am fragmented. There are many parts of me – some of them conflicting – and it’s okay to embrace certain aspects of yourself before you learn to embrace the whole. And that’s what signing means to me: Identity. Acceptance (both of myself and from other people). Community. Belonging. Is that too much to ask of a single language? I don’t think so.

(Please note: This blog has been written by an independent author not associated with Signature, any and all views expressed are that of the independent author who does speak on Signature’s behalf.)

Share this article: