Many Ways to Be Deaf: International Variation in Deaf
Despite the oppressive treatment of society, the Chiying deaf people seem to regard their deafness more as an inconvenience that could be dealt with than as a tragedy. But I sensed that the views of deaf children and deaf adults were different. If asked directly whether deafness was a positive or negative thing, the children’s faces registered surprise—apparently, at the question. “Of course it’s bad!” they signed. Although the children permitted me, with great enthusiasm, to videotape them playing, they unequivocally refused my requests to videotape them signing. I wondered why they did not want to appear on videotape answering my off-camera questions or even having signed conversations with each other.
I asked one of the teachers whether the children would consider their signing on videotape to be a display of a disability and, therefore, an embarrassment. The teacher laughed off this suggestion and offered another explanation. Taiwanese children are not used to being experts, he said. For them, adults are experts. The idea that I might ask them something that they might not know how to answer would involve a great loss of face. Even assuming that I left them to talk with one another while taping them, knowing what to talk about presented problems, particularly if I were to ask them about something they said. It was safer for them to avoid the whole issue by not getting involved at all.
The adults had somewhat contradictory attitudes about their deafness. A few deaf people said they deeply regretted not being able to speak. One man, visibly moved, told me that only some students, those who had residual hearing, had opportunities for speech training in childhood. He had not been among them. Throughout his whole education, no one had attempted at any time to teach him to speak; he had signed from the beginning at the Chiying School. But most deaf people seemed to have no particular interest in hearing or speech. Its utility as a means of communication notwithstanding, it simply had nothing to do with their lives. It had long been recognized and accepted that, for some deaf people, speech training served no practical purpose; it was simply too much effort for scanty results. According to a conversation I had with Yau Shun Chiu in 1991, this view is also prevalent in mainland China.
With the onus of learning to speak lifted from the shoulders of deaf students, one might imagine that the Chiying School, if not the educational system, would have actually fostered a cohesive and strong deaf community, intended or not. That community, we might imagine, might have great pride in its own natural sign language and even, perhaps, not much regard for what was going on in the hearing world. In fact, I did not observe this. The educational system, set up for hearing children and merely adapted to the needs of deaf children, and the constant contact with hearing families ensure that hearing people and their concerns are always a factor in deaf life in Taiwan. In general, deaf people seemed to defer their own communicative needs to the needs or perceived needs of the hearing people around them.
One of the deaf people with whom I shared a collegial and friendly relationship invited me to visit his hearing family. At their home, his nonsigning family members and I communicated in a mixture of spoken English and spoken Mandarin. I felt the need to try to sign at least the gist of what I was saying so I would not exclude my deaf consultant. He seemed content enough to read my signs and know approximately what was being said. However, with my unequal abilities in English, Mandarin, and TSL, he knew that the communicative burden quickly became too much for me. I thought he might then begin to communicate with me in TSL and leave his family to fend for themselves. But he seemed to want me to talk with his family rather than with him. He readily walked away or looked away, clearly indicating that he was content not to be included.
The deaf people and I were invited out one evening by some hearing people who were closely involved with the school. Some of them could sign. We sat at a large round table, intermixed, deaf and hearing. All were Taiwanese but me. The hearing people spoke Taiwanese, and those of us who could not were quickly left in the dark. I felt uncomfortable eating in silence while people were speaking around me, and I looked for ways to be part of a conversation.
I began to sign with the deaf man across the table, and we held a brief and tenuous conversation. When it ended, I turned to the deaf woman seated beside me. Although we began what turned out to be a long interchange, when I compared her signing style and demeanor in this instance to that of conversations we had had in other settings, she seemed restrained and self-conscious. I concluded that something about this setting made them feel awkward to sign.