Monday, December 9, 2013

A New Dream

My third semester of taking ASL (American Sign Language) classes has now come to an end.  Although this was my third semester of ASL, when the semester began - I was a journalism major.  Journalism has been my major since I started at my current college in the year of 2010.  In fact, I've wanted to major in journalism since I was 13-years-old.  (I'm pretty sure Superman and Lois Lane may be partial to blame for this life decision.)

My goal was never to be a reporter for the New York Times or for the local Fresno Bee.  My goal was to go overseas, using my journalism skill set of video creations, writing, and photography on a mission field - kind of like what I did in London.  I always saw myself working in another country, in another culture. But, recently I realized that my preferred writing style isn't even close to the journalistic style, and I decided that I pretty much despised my college's journalism classes and didn't care about the classwork.  I thought, "If I don't like the classwork, I'm pretty sure I won't like the real-life work either."  And although I am staying open and flexible about the idea of the mission field, currently I am leaning more towards staying and settling in California.

Now, here I am in 2013 at 22-years-old.  In October I officially changed my nine-year journalistic dream to chase a new dream.  I am now majoring in ASL, hoping to one day become skilled enough to be an interpreter for the medical field.  Once I am done at the local city college with my AA and interpreting certificate, I would love to continue studying ASL at Gallaudet - the main university for the Deaf - through their hearing program. (Between the expense and high competitive level for the hearing program, it is a big we'll see.)

When I tell people I am studying ASL, often I get asked, "What has inspired you to learn ASL?  Why learn ASL over German or Spanish?"  To answer those frequently asked questions, I will usually explain that I needed either music or language credits for my AA in college.  Considering I can't keep rhythm to save my life, I easily chose to learn a new language.  But why specifically ASL? 

Growing up, my sister, Amanda, studied ASL.  Instead of teaching me ASL as she learned the language, she would sign to me or in front of me with her hearing best friend - and never would interpret what was being said.  So, as I thought about which language I wanted to take, I thought, "Since I don't really have an interest in learning a language at all, I'll just take a couple of ASL courses to meet the basic college requirements, but mostly so I also learn how to decode what my sister signs.  I’m going to beat Amanda at her own game!" 

Since changing my major, I've been asked once again, "Why ASL?"  I started to give the answer I've been giving for the last few months…But then I realized - my original answer that I've been giving is why I started learning ASL and what lead me on this path…but it's not why I continue to choose to passionately pursue knowledge of the language and knowledge about Deaf Culture.  So, one again…Why ASL?

There are many factors that worked together in helping me decide to continue studying ASL.  First, my ASL 1-3 teacher, Nancy, is passionate about teaching her native language to others – and it shines through her every day.  The more I’ve learned in my ASL 1-3 classes and the more I get to know Nancy on a personal level, the more I feel inspired to continue learning about Deaf culture and the language.  She is someone that I admire, and sometimes I can't but think, "If I didn't learn ASL - I'd be missing the chance to know her…How many inspiring people have I missed the chance on knowing, just because I didn't know their language - especially ASL?"

Second, I accidentally fell in love with the language.  I had every intention to complete just two classes and be forever finished with the subject. When I talk to people about my ASL classes, I always tell them, “I walk into the classroom and when I leave – I feel more in love with ASL than when I walked in the door just two hours earlier.”  It's the first time in a long time I've felt so passionate about something, and the first time in a long time where I have felt like, "This is where I belong".  I’ve been told by my friends that my eyes literally light up when I talk about the language, and have even been told by another friend that when I write about learning ASL that my words seem to light up on her computer screen. 

Third, and most importantly, for the first time - the more Deaf people I meet, the more I feel like I am understood and have found a group of people I can relate to in certain ways.

Fact is: I am not Deaf.  I am 100% hearing.  Despite this fact, since starting ASL classes, for the first time in my life I feel like I am meeting people I connect with who "get me" more than the average hearing person.  For the first time, I feel like I've found a group of people who fully accept me for who I am and who I can somewhat identify with.  (Granted, I know my family fully accepts me as I am – but although they accept me, there is a part of me that they will never fully understand or identify with.)

Again, I'm not Deaf, so there are some things that I know I will never understand about the experiences and life of a Deaf person.  However, being born with a birthmark that covers half my face, I understand what it means to not quite fit into the stupid box that our American society hands out to each child at the moment of their first breath.

I still remember a class conversation that took place earlier in the semester.  It's one that won't leave my mind, and it is probably one of the biggest moments when I realized that I feel as though I relate more to Deaf people than I had previously realized.  Those that are Deaf were primarily sharing in class about family meals.  I remember someone sharing that when they are with their family, people verbally make jokes and laugh.  When asking what was said, the Deaf person would be told, "I'll tell you later", or, "It's not that important."

Many of my classmates were asking, "Doesn't that make you mad??"  The response shared was something to the effect of, "I'm use to it."  People sitting next to me expressed how sad and upsetting they found this reality for many lives of the Deaf.  I too, was saddened.  In fact - I remember being moved to tears, thinking about how lonely that would be to not understand what was being said, and having no one willing to interpret. But I also remember thinking, "I get it."  And I do get it - to an extent from two different perspectives.

This summer I spent two long months in Germany.  I know I've mentioned that I was supposed to be there for 6 months total, but instead of coming home in December, I came home in August.  My time there isn't really much to talk about on the positive end of the spectrum…Hence coming home early.  For many different reasons, living in Germany was one of the biggest struggles I have ever had to face - especially alone.  (I've briefly mentioned my time in Germany since arriving home.  Most of what I wrote - which isn't much - can be found in my entry "Life Outside Church Walls.")

As I think about my time there, I remember the strong sense of loneliness I felt.  Not being from Germany, I don't know more than 30 basic words and phrases of German….And I only know the 30 because of my time there.  Despite my lack of knowledge of the German language, I still had to face my days and live the life of the Germans.  Some days I would be around people for 6-10 hours with German being spoken all around me…usually with no one willing to interpret.  I would sit there completely lost, often finding myself staring at a wall completely in another world.  I felt completely isolated.

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, let me clarify: I never expected the Germans I met to cater to me as an American and native English speaker.  I knew going to Germany that I was going to a different country with a different language.  I respected this fact and looked forward to this upcoming adventure!  I went expecting and hoping to learn the language.  (I was so dedicated to learning the language that I even inquired a few times about language school – but my idea and interest was shot down each time.)  However, the days when I was around German for so many hours, I struggled.  I had no idea what was being said.  I didn't understand the joke, or even if I was the joke a time or two…Or why people were laughing.  (There were a few times when a laughing crowd would look in my direction.  I still have no idea what was said, or why they were looking my direction while laughing.)  If instructions were given, I couldn't rely on the spoken instructions.  I had to watch other people's actions and play an international version of Follow the Leader.

Even though I was almost always around a couple of English teachers and someone who held a past job as an interpreter, knowing both German and English rather well, rarely were things interpreted to me. 

I even remember a Sunday after church when I was talking to a friend.  My friend expressed that she was tired and that speaking in English was becoming more difficult as she became more tired.  I told her that she could leave, that I was thankful for her sweet friendship, and kind efforts.  She told me, "I don't want to leave you here alone with no one to talk to."  Replying, I told her, "No worries!  I am happy that I was able to speak to you just for an hour in English!  I'll be okay sitting alone for a bit."

Instead of letting me sit there alone, she went got the attention of one of her friends.  A couple of Sundays before, this friend was supposed to interpret a two-hour church service for me from German to English.  In the end, she didn't as she forgot (which, I totally understand!), but I knew that she knew English rather well by this fact - and by a couple of brief conversations I had already had with her.  Once my friend got the lady’s attention, my friend said, "Hey - I am leaving.  Can you keep Crystal company and talk with her?"   Before turning and walking away, the friend gave a two glance and two second reply, "No, sorry.  My English isn't very good."  Her English "wasn't very good", yet we had talked before and she had promised interpret different things for me in the future.

I only lived in Germany for two months, and I lived with people I had met for the first time…and although I know this part of my Germany experience doesn't even compare the the life-long stories and experiences of those who are Deaf...knowing how lonely and frustrated I felt by being left out and often ignored, it breaks my heart knowing that families with a Deaf child or sibling willingly do that to their loved one.  Actually, it doesn't just break my heart.  This completely shatters it.

It was a really hard moment when I felt completely dismissed by the lady, who knew English, but wasn't willing to make an effort - especially after she promised to spend time with me and to help me…and she was someone I barely knew.  And I know it's one thing for a near stranger to do this…But it bothers me that families would do the same thing to their own blood...Not being willing to make an effort to learn sign language, or sometimes not being willing to use what ASL they do know with someone is Deaf.   To be frank - I find it to be quite stupid.  (I have a friend in my ASL classes who has a Deaf friend.  Her friend’s parents know ASL, yet they chose to speak around their son without signing or interpreting the conversation. My friend, a classmate, had to interpret the family’s whole conversation to their son – her recently made friend.) 

I imagine and very well remember the struggle of two months among people who were practically strangers.  As I try to imagine living a whole 22 years with the experience with my own personal family…I can't even wrap my mind around the idea, let alone my heart.

(Before I continue – let me add that I am extremely thankful for a few specific people who went out of their way to welcome me to Germany, trying make me comfortable.  Although I am extremely thankful for their efforts, and I remember my time with them with a smile on my face, I either usually only saw these people once a week…or, I sadly did not meet most of these these friends until the end of my time there.)

The second way I can relate to the class discussion is in regards to the response of, "I'm use to it.”

No one in class was able to understand how Deaf people can become use to family members who aren't willing to communicate and include their family members.  I don't know what it is like to go to family dinners and to be left out in this way.  However, I do understand how it one can become use to something that most people don’t understand.

Having a birthmark on my face…Well, that’s hard to hide!  Between people’s staring, crazy comments, or rude questions, I usually have a story to tell by the end of each day – or at least a few by the end of each week!

Recently I met a Deaf woman by the name of Lisa.  She told me that someone once wrote a question down for her on a piece of paper that asked, “Do you know how to read??”  From what I understood, the person was genuinely curious if she had the ability to read – but I guess they didn’t realize the irony of their question, nor did they know how to completely use their brain when they asked it.

No one ever asks me if I know how to read, but I do get asked questions all of the time. I get asked, “Does your husband beat you?” (I’m not even married – or dating.)  Or, “What’s on your face?  Is it contagious?”  One time a store clerk asked me what was on my face.  I told her it was just a birthmark that I was born with.  She responded with, “Oh – that must be an interesting story to tell.”  Confused, I thought, “Ummm…There is no story.  I was born – end of story.  It’s people like you who give me stories to tell!”  Or, for a more recent story - I had a guy staring at me.  Usually during these staring contests people get a clue that they should stop.  This man, however, did not.  For the first time I actually had to say, “You can stop staring at me now.  You’re being incredibly awkward.”  He did stop…For two minutes.  Then his eyes returned.

Usually I take these situations with a grain of salt and take them as moments to laugh.  When I am out with friends or family and someone is staring, being rude by what they say or ask me, my friend will ask me with anger in their voice, “How do you put up with this??  How are you not rude back?” Casually and calmly, I respond, “I’m use to it.” – And my friends don’t get it.  They forget that I was born with a birthmark on my face and forget that I was born into a lifetime of staring contests and bizarre questions and comments.  They also forget that I don’t know life any differently. While it’s not normal to them, this is the normalcy of my life…Even if it is sometimes a bit of an obnoxious kind of normal.

Maybe I don’t get what it is like being Deaf.  Maybe those who are Deaf don’t get what it is like having a very visible birthmark covering their face…But although my story is different than someone who is Deaf and vice versa, there are still often common denominators in our stories.  Even my ASL teacher recently told me, "Your stories about your birthmark...Yours happen to be visible while my deafness is invisible but the way people deal with us is more similar than one would think."

As I learn of other people’s stories, I realize that some people who are considered “normal” can easily become ignorant and uncomfortable with something that is “different”…and because of this discomfort and lack of knowledge, people don’t know how to act – often resulting in their insensitive and brainless questions.  They forget that regardless of who the person is and what they look like, or if they are Deaf or blind – we are all ultimately the same on the inside.  We are all people with joys and sorrows, people with heartaches and happiness.  We are all people with a story to tell and people who have feelings.

While growing up outside of the box, many lessons can be learned.  You can learn to be confident and happy in who you are and not conform to what others wish you could be.  You learn that there is something incredibly beautiful in being “different”.  And yeah…sometimes I do get frustrated in specific situations…But if I react in equal rudeness to the comment or question given, wouldn’t I be giving up an opportunity to educate another person?

Even if someone asks a question in an insensitive manner, I still believe that it’s an open door to educate someone – and possibly the chance to change their perspective on how they see other people – and the world.  It’s a chance to teach that people who have birthmarks, people who are blind, Deaf, in a wheel chair, etc…That these are not people to look down on or people to treat like they are any less than themselves, but these are incredibly beautiful people we can look up to for inspiration and as great role models.

Growing up, I've never really felt like I've lacked people who understand me.  But, now that I have met Deaf people who understand me more than most hearing people, I find a sense happiness and relief that I didn’t realize was missing.

Deaf people are always talking about Deaf pride and being happy in who they are - regardless of not fitting into that ridiculous box.  Even though I'm not Deaf, I find the attitudes of those that are to be contagious and to be a reminder to be happy and proud of who I am whether I am hearing, Deaf, if I have a birthmark or don't, if I fit into that box, or if I break the mold.  

The Travelin' Chick,

PS: Most of what I have published here was written for a class journal for my Deaf Culture classes - but with a few alterations.  There are other reasons as to why I am studying ASL…Like the stories I learn about of children who are mistreated by adults because they are Deaf...Like in my blog entry "A Home to Return to", with the story of the Deaf child whose parents cut off her fingers because she was signing instead of speaking…Yeah, stories like that?  They break my heart.  Stories like that make me want to try and make a difference on how the Deaf are treated, and any person who is being mistreated in any way.