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American Annals of the Deaf

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Many Ways to Be Deaf: International Variation in Deaf Communities

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And although the Chiying deaf people acknowledged that SIGNING THE CHARACTERS IN ORDER and SIGNING THE CHARACTERS OUT OF ORDER, were two very different ways of signing, they sometimes would claim they were using Signed Mandarin when they were actually using TSL but signing slowly. Similarly, fast signing was labeled as TSL even if it was Signed Mandarin. The Chiying deaf people sometimes claimed that Signed Mandarin and TSL were distributed according to geography. They might assert, for example, that signers from Tainan “signed the characters in order” whereas Kaohsiung signers “signed the characters out of order.” Out of all Taiwan’s signers, I was once told, Taipei signers were the best at “signing the characters out of order.” They also shared other similar theories. These statements were rarely consistent and reflected fleeting impressions rather than reasoned generalizations that were based on data analysis. However, as research continues on TSL, we might find truths about regional variation beyond Smith’s (1989) claims.


This section describes both the children and the adults I came to know the best. To protect the privacy of the people I write about, each person’s name has been rendered as a single letter followed by a dash, and some identifying characteristics have been changed.

The Chiying Students

The children, mostly boys, except one girl who was developmentally disabled, ranged in age from about 7 to 16. The older deaf boys were the clear leaders whereas the younger deaf boys and all the developmentally disabled children were the followers. A few of the students had a deaf parent, but most were the only deaf member of hearing families. During the time that I was there, one deaf boy’s hearing father removed him from the school for 30 days in an attempt to cure his deafness with Chinese medicine. When the boy returned to school, he was still deaf. A few students had strong hearing or deaf families who cared deeply for them. But a significant number came to attend the Chiying School through circumstances that seemed reflective of relations between deaf and hearing people in general, ranging from benign neglect to abuse. Some had been dropped off years before by unstable families who rarely, if ever, visited. Others were found abandoned and brought to the Chiying School.

All of the children had energy to spare, and almost all were boisterous. Their lives, from my perspective, revolved around playing. Playing involved forming a group of eight to ten, a great deal of physical contact among those in the group, and the constant movement of the group around school premises. Although the boys tickled one another mercilessly, tackled one another to the floor on a regular basis, and seemed to infuriate one another often, they rarely hurt one another intentionally. A hard of hearing child who wore a hearing aid, was not a fluent signer, and had negative attitudes toward signing was more of a target than any of the deaf boys. The deaf boys called the hard of hearing child by the sign TING REN (hearing person).9

The Chiying Staff

Both deaf and hearing teachers and staff members worked at the Chiying School. A hearing woman called “obasan” (aunt) prepared breakfast and dinner for the boarders as well as lunch for all the children. She also laundered the boarders’ clothes. Her title was one of the many signs of Japanese influence in Taiwan; obasan is a Japanese word used to refer to a housekeeper. Obasan clearly cared about the deaf students, and her conversation with them was sparsely peppered with signs.

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