Many Ways to Be Deaf: International Variation in Deaf
When I later asked some deaf and hearing people about my impressions of the evening, all said it was perfectly acceptable—even normal—for the deaf people to sit silently, whether seated together or apart, in mixed social groups with hearing people while spoken conversation buzzed around them. I had the impression from both deaf and hearing people around the school that mixed gatherings were not infrequent and that the deaf people were not excluded in that sense when “everyone” went out to dinner. Still, signing at the table in mixed groups seemed marked. However, I could detect no discomfort among the deaf or hearing people with respect to this arrangement.
One Chiying deaf person whose linguistic prowess was clear once remarked, “It’s hard to be deaf because I can’t talk easily to you.” This remark reflects her assumption that it is her responsibility to bridge the gap in our linguistic abilities and that I had no responsibility for our successful communication. I did not clearly understand how my status as a foreigner and as a hearing person might have interacted to produce this result.
One might assume that the deaf Taiwanese, by constantly deferring their communicative needs, bore a great burden of oppression without being aware of it or angered by it, but I do not think that assumption explains the whole picture. Although I never heard a deaf person raise concern about any of the communicative matters, deaf people openly revealed among themselves and, many times, in my presence profound dissatisfaction with their economic situation. They believe that their lives have been harder because they are deaf. They believe that the government should do something to help them, and indeed, in recent years, policies have been put in place to ensure that deaf (and other “disabled”) people are charged a lower fee for amenities such as public transportation and admission to parks. Deaf people do not mind paying less because, I was told, they are acutely aware of the fact that they routinely work with hearing people who are paid higher salaries for the same work. Apparently, this pay differential goes without saying in Taiwanese society. Deaf people will work for less, and so they are paid less, which puts them at a distinct disadvantage given Taiwan’s rather high cost of living.
Many deaf people consider themselves to be loyal and hardworking, less because they are endeared to their employers than because they have few choices in employment. Even a job at which they are exploited is better than no job. People or organizations that are perceived as culprits in wronging deaf people are said to be “in cahoots with each other.” To express this idea, they use the sign GUAN XI (relationship), inflected to indicate a group of them. And all the deaf adults said that, in their lifetimes, things for deaf people had greatly improved in Taiwan.
One day during a long and spirited conversation, one Chiying deaf person asked me whether I was aware that deaf people often engaged in socially deviant behavior. I nodded. “People say deaf people steal, and that is sometimes true,” he went on. “I myself stole when I was younger. But do you know why they steal?”
I had a few ideas. I responded that, during my stay in Kaohsiung, I had noticed many negative attitudes about deafness in conversations with deaf and hearing people alike. I suggested that, as children, deaf people learn to have low self-esteem. In addition, cultural and linguistic barriers are placed in the way of their success. They experience enormous frustrations associated with being deaf in an unfriendly society. Why shouldn’t they steal?
“That is only part of it,” the man said. “They steal because they work for little money. If they don’t steal, they go hungry.”