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 you’re 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.)