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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Many Ways to Be Deaf: International Variation in Deaf Communities

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Deaf People’s Attitudes about Hearing People

If deafness is an inconvenience, then the ability to hear is a profound convenience and a great gift. In the minds of Chiying deaf people, being hearing was related to literacy, perhaps to intelligence, and ultimately to success in life. They seemed to feel that their only impediment to success is their deafness and that hearing people’s success in their society is entirely because of their hearing. I found out soon after my arrival that the children saw my hearing status as utterly incongruent with the fact that I could not write Chinese characters very well. My obvious racial and cultural differences did not excuse me in any way. To them, it was preposterous that I was not literate in Chinese because I was hearing. Indeed, particularly at the beginning, even the adults seemed surprised that I could not be counted on to read the simplest of sentences written in Chinese characters. Over the months, in casual discussions that mentioned one hearing person or another who found the perfect spouse, wrote a book, or made a lot of money, the unsurprised response was, “Of course. She (or he) is hearing.”

Although the deaf people seemed to envy and admire the ease with which a hearing life may be lived, they were a little “afraid of” or put off by hearing people. On an outing one day, two of the children and I attracted a great deal of attention from hearing people who saw us walking and signing together. Five or six people began to gather and stare. They seemed to be talking about us, but they spoke in Taiwanese, so neither the children nor I understood what they were saying. I was extremely uncomfortable with the attention; it was a great shock after being inside the gates of the Chiying School where signing was not only accepted but also expected and was certainly nothing special. In my annoyance, I realized that, outside the school, signing was fair game for this sort of attention, as are many behaviors that the local community thought of as odd in some way. I tried to ignore the attention, as did the children—or so it seemed. But after we had managed to catch a bus and leave the interested crowd, one of the children told me, “I’m glad to be out of there. I’m afraid of hearing people.”

No one I knew admitted to disliking or liking hearing people simply because they were hearing. Most of the deaf people I talked with seemed to hold hearing people in general in high regard; some said they had a number of tolerant hearing friends. Some deaf people thought deaf people were kinder and easier to get to know whereas hearing people were stiffer and harder to talk with. Others seemed to want to have hearing friends but did not know quite where to begin to cultivate any. Other deaf people did not much care whether their friends were deaf or hearing as long as they had some of the same beliefs and attitudes. In a memorable conversation, one deaf man said, “If a hearing person’s heart and my heart are going the same way, fine, but otherwise, I’m not interested in hearing people.”

Hearing People’s Attitudes about Deafness and Deaf People

In many parts of the world, a signed language seems to hold a certain attraction for hearing people, and Taiwan is no exception. These days, ample evidence indicates that hearing Taiwanese are attracted to and interested in TSL. According to a conversation with Smith in 1991, sign language classes available in Taipei in the 1970s were full as soon as they were offered (Chao 1994, 347). Interpreters appear in boxes on Taiwanese television, and Taiwanese airlines feature interpreted safety announcements. Many hearing people accept the abstract idea that deaf people are valuable citizens and should be treated and thought of well, all things being equal. However, some hearing people harbor a deep disdain for deaf people, including some hearing people who are intimately tied to deaf people.

A hearing child of deaf parents told me a painful story of eating in a restaurant with his parents as a young child. The waiters made fun of his parents’ signing, and he retaliated by throwing food on the floor. During his later childhood years, children from hearing families teased him because of his deaf parents. Classmates treated him in this manner until he reached college age. Deaf parents reported again and again that their hearing children wanted little to do with them. Deafness flags possible social problems, and few would want to marry someone whose parents do not have advantages of money and position needed in Taiwanese society.

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