Many Ways to Be Deaf: International Variation in Deaf
T——’s precise job at the school was unclear to me, but he seemed to serve as an all-around caretaker and administrator. He became deaf at age 7 and began first grade at the Chiying School at age 14. After graduation, he continued to work for the school and had worked there ever since. When I met him, he was in his early 50s, animated, and fun. His life up till then had spanned a number of hard years in Taiwan. As a child, he had known poverty, and when I met him, he talked of younger people (who had grown up in a richer, more modern Taiwan) not understanding his struggles to survive back then as a poor man and as a deaf man. The toil of his young adulthood yielded better times. He eventually became reasonably financially secure, married, and had children.
T——’s linguistic repertoire included both sign and spoken languages. He subscribed to the belief that CSL was preferable to TSL. He seemed to be a fluent signer of CSL, and though he understood TSL, he did not produce it. The TSL signers and T—— conversed often. A frequent observer of these interactions, I thought that TSL signers produced TSL and understood CSL, and that T—— produced CSL and understood TSL. All of the Chiying deaf people said this method was exactly how T—— and the TSL signers communicated. (Things were a bit different when the Chiying TSL signers saw Chiang Ssu Nung. Despite the fact that CSL had essentially fallen into disuse in the community at large, the Chiying TSL signers said they either had to remember their CSL signs or simply not communicate with Chiang.)
In addition, before T—— became deaf, he was a speaker of Taiwanese and also knew some Japanese. I saw him use both languages in a few circumstances, for example, with hearing people who could not sign, when he had not established eye contact with a hearing person, or when he believed a hearing person would not understand his signing. Several times, after sessions with me lasting more than an hour, he spoke with Jennifer in Taiwanese. A patient and excellent communicator, he seemed determined to establish a channel of communication with whomever he pleased regardless of any differences in linguistic backgrounds. When his interlocutor was less energetic or creative than he was, he took on the burden of the extra work enthusiastically—freely making use of mime, gesture, CSL, some TSL, and his spoken languages. The consequence was that nonsigners and signers who were not fluent understood what he was saying almost in spite of themselves. Though T—— was the first deaf person to spend a significant amount of time with me, I saw him regularly only at the beginning of my stay at the school. When his responsibilities beckoned him elsewhere, I turned toward other members of the Chiying School’s deaf community.
When I met him, F—— was a teacher at the school in his early thirties. He had been born deaf into a family with only one other deaf relative. He had been educated at the Chiying School and then attended middle school and high school in Tainan, so he had learned CSL first and then TSL. He said that both languages were part of him but that he regularly used TSL and not CSL because not many people understood CSL. By all accounts, he read and wrote Chinese well. He seemed to be a successful student of languages; he had learned some written Japanese in childhood, which he used when the occasion called for it.10 F—— seemed endlessly interested when I used a fingerspelled word or a sign from ASL. On these occasions, he often learned the sign and signed it back to me in other contexts, assuming I would be amused. I never heard F—— speak a word of any language.
Though I was able to chat one on one with the deaf people around the school, it was difficult or impossible to participate in discussions in which people were signing but not directly to me. However, I wanted to take advantage of every chance to learn as much TSL as possible, so when I lost the thread of the conversation, I would get someone’s attention and ask for help. In so doing, I routinely tried to focus my questions on a specific sign rather than a general topic. Further, I decided not to depend on one person all the time. I intuited from my experience at the school that doing so might suggest that I was more confident in a particular person than in the community at large and that this would not be acceptable. Apparently I was wrong; most of the deaf people seemed to feel that it took special talents to deal with me. For weeks, everyone I questioned would hesitate a moment before beginning to answer and then suddenly turn to or summon F——. “She doesn’t understand GONG (public),” they’d say. “Explain to her.” F—— was able, effortlessly it seemed, to construct the perfect canonical scenario to make the meaning of the sign obvious to me. So it came to be that for most of my stay at Chiying, F—— was considered the person who could get through to me, no matter what.