Back in a “hearing world”

It’s been about 2 months since I left Gallaudet and Washington D.C. I look back at the experience with a great sense of gratitude. When friends and family ask how my summer was in past years, my usual reply would be, “It was great!” This year, however, I found myself saying, “It was fruitful.”

It was fruitful because it was an experience that challenged and changed me. Being immersed in the language and culture of a people who are often invisible, yet surround us, has allowed me to become more sensitive to human difference beyond racial and ethnic tropes that dominate narratives about “human diversity” today. The Deaf literally taught me how to see differently. I saw how language and culture do not exist apart from how people are made—biology and culture are two sides of the same coin. I saw how visual language could say things that oral and written language would never adequately express; it makes one think differently. Best of all, I saw possibilities for a society that enables, rather than disables, that is, the possibility of radical hospitality.

There have been some things I’ve missed since my return. I miss not having to use my voice at 8 a.m. As an introvert, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed communicating with my hands at that hour. I also miss being able to communicate with a friend across the room without having to yell and attract unwanted attention—this happens more often than one might think! Most of all, I miss worshipping in ASL, which I got to do for 6 weeks at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in MD. I am grateful to this welcoming community for inspiring me to write this theological reflection on recent debates about ways of praying at Mass (part II can be found here).

My initial motivation for going to Gallaudet was to learn more about Deaf culture and improve my ASL so I may do ethnographic research at Deaf Catholic Churches. I am pleased to say that I gained all that and more. But so that I retain what I learned over the summer and gain more fluency in the language, I am now auditing an advanced ASL course at Bethel College and have been attending local Deaf events. I also intend to start an “ASL language table” at Notre Dame to share what I’ve learned and promote the language.


Post-Program Reflections

It is time for me to reflect on my experiences as a student of German and as an American in Germany. What did I learn about the acquisition of languages? I believe that the most important factor in learning a language is time. Even though I lived in Germany and studied the language systematically, it still took time to acquire vocabulary and learn grammatical structures. Even more difficult was utilizing the vocabulary and grammar that I had learned to speak German, since real-time communication allows very little time to reflect on correct usage.

Even at the end of my stay in Germany, it was difficult for me to understand native German speakers for two reasons: first, they spoke too quickly for me to recognize all of the words and grammatical structures they were using; second, they used vocabulary that I did not know. My ability to speak German was also hampered by my limited vocabulary and incomplete knowledge of grammar. I also struggled to to recognize and formulate German idioms. When writing German, I would also “think” in English idioms and formulate German phrases with these in mind. I had to rely on someone who was fluent in German to show me when I had used an English idiom or when I needed to use a German idiom.

In my SLA proposal, I articulated several goals which I intended to meet after the completion of my eight-week course at the Goethe Institut:

  1. Internalize the morphological and syntactical principles of German such that I can recognize them effortlessly while reading German texts.
  2. Learn to easily comprehend spoken German and acquire the ability to competently converse in German.
  3. Be able to write German with sufficient competency to carry on written correspondence with German colleagues.

Although I am significantly more comfortable with German now than when I first arrived in Germany, I am still only an advanced beginner. Somewhat disappointingly, my course at the Goethe Institut did not cover all of the basic grammatical principles of German. Given what I did learn, however, both at the Goethe Institut and in my graduate German for reading course, I can decipher most of the grammar that I encounter, at least enough to grasp the basic meaning of a text.

Regarding my second goal of being able to speak German and understand spoken German: I cannot easily speak German or understand native German speakers for the reasons mentioned above. But my German for reading course did not teach me to speak or understand spoken German in any way, so I am definitely closer to competency in these areas than I was at the beginning of my studies in Germany. I believe that I have come closest to reaching the third goal of being able to write emails in German. When I am writing, I have more time to reflect on grammatical construction or look up words in a dictionary; I can also have someone else proof-read what I have written, in case I have made mistakes. I could not write anything especially elegant or complicated, but I believe that I know German well enough to communicate through writing on a basic level.

I found that humility is an essential quality when living or travelling in a foreign culture. It is disorienting to be a foreigner. It is uncomfortable to be faced with ambiguity. It is difficult to recognize the cultural preconceptions that often lead us to misinterpret cultural norms or interpersonal interactions. When I encountered situations where things were done differently than in the US, my initial reaction often depended on whether the change affected me positively or negatively. Eventually I learned to avoid judging the difference as good or bad and instead used it to gain insight into myself, my culture, or the culture in which I was a visitor.



Deaf Space

“Deaf people inhabit a rich sensory world where vision and touch are a primary means of spatial awareness and orientation. Many use sign language, a visual-kinetic mode of communication and maintain a strong cultural identity built around these sensibilities and shared life experiences. Our built environment, largely constructed by and for hearing individuals, presents a variety of surprising challenges to which deaf people have responded with a particular way of altering their surroundings to fit their unique ways-of-being.  This approach is often referred to as DeafSpace.”

One of the great things about studying and living at Gallaudet is having the ability to experience DeafSpace. What is DeafSpace like?

Several newer buildings on campus are built as DeafSpaces. These buildings generally have open spaces, automatic doors, proper lighting, and wall colors without patterns that are pleasing to the eye. This is one Open spacesof the buildings designed as a DeafSpace. I had the pleasure of attending a couple of ice cream socials organized for summer ASL students here. It was interesting to watch how easily the space could be used for “speeches” because it was so open. There is also an elevated platform across from the bench which could act as a make-shift stage.

Several older buildings on campus have since been renovated to be more Deaf friendly. In one of the buildings, a courtyard was created so people could congregate in the middle of the building and so people could see one another even if they were on a different level.

Almost all classrooms had off-white or light blue walls. Doors often have glass panels on them such that one is able look into or outside of the classroom easily. One day, my teacher was signing with another teacher who was just outside the classroom, through the glass door. They had no need to open the door since they could see each other! There are, of course, downsides to having glass doors – sometimes, one might prefer some privacy. As such, there are blinds that people can use as and when they see fit.

Now here’s a fun fact for ND football fans. Did you know that the football huddle was pioneered by Gallaudet’s football team? They had to huddle together so the other team wouldn’t be able to see their signs! The football field is not DeafSpace per se, but the huddle gives us a sense of what cultural DeafSpace is like. It was an ingenious solution that even the hearing could use.

Gallaudet Football field

Gallaudet Football field

It’s important to realize that making a space Deaf friendly doesn’t necessarily have to entail costly architectural changes. Union market which is just across the street from Gallaudet is a warehouse turned farmers market/ haven for foodies (I ate there a lot!) What I especially loved about Union market was how many restaurant owners have made their stalls Deaf friendly.

DC Empanadas at Union Market

DC Empanadas at Union Market

DC Empanadas is one such stall. First, they visually show and describe what their food is like, making it easy for the Deaf to know what’s being sold (though this is helpful, even for the hearing!) Second, they have servers who can take orders in ASL! How does this work? The guy at the counter signs HELLO in ASL to everyone who steps up to the counter. If the person signs back, he continues taking the order in sign. If the person begins speaking to him, he uses his voice. This is one farmers market I’d recommend any one in DC to check out at least once. Oh, and did I already mention that the food is amazing?


De’VIA art

Today, we had to make a presentation on a piece of Deaf Art, or De’VIA (short for Deaf view/image art.) De’VIA came about following a meeting of eight Deaf artists in 1989 at Gallaudet University. The eight penned a manifesto describing what De’VIA art aims to express. The chief difference between De’VIA art and other Deaf Art is that regular Deaf artists are free to create art in any form, media, matter, or subject, but De’VIA artists focus on expressing innate cultural or physical Deaf experience through visual art.

There are three main tendencies: 1) a focus of Deaf perspectives and insights in relation to the natural world or Deaf cultural environment, spiritually or in everyday life; 2) the use of strong colors and contrasting textures to express values and experiences; 3) exaggerations or emphasis on certain facial or bodily features especially hands, eyes, mouth, and ears.

For my presentation, I chose De’VIA artist, Susan Dupor’s 2004 work, entitled “Quiet Woods Forever.” I chose this work because it stood out to me as such a vivid expression of the Deaf experience and seemed to hold incredible hope for the Deaf community.

Susan Dupor was born deaf to a hearing family in Wisconsin, and did not have access to formal language until she was 4. Her artist statement tells of how formative those early years of her life was for her even though she did not have language skills. As a toddler, she often went into to woods to play and learned through touch and sight. As a result, her paintings often depict scenes in nature.

Quiet Woods Forever, Susan Dupor, De’VIA artist, 2004

There is a lot of movement in this picture, depicted as a sequence of images. First, there is an older girl giving a young girl a deer skull, something she may have discovered in the woods as a young girl. I surmise that the young girl might be her daughter, and that the giving of the deer skill is a symbol of her handing on the tradition or culture of learning by sight and touch – the Deaf way. The older girl ascends the tree as her hands come together right at the highest point of the tree trunk. This is the sign for “equality” or “justice”  and seem to allude to the idea that there is hope for improvement towards equality between the hearing and the Deaf. The young girl is signing as well. She begins with her finger on her forehead, and ends with a sign that looks like the Hawaiian “aloha.” This is the sign for “forever.” But notice that the young girl’s hand actually gets bigger towards the end, again expressing movement and growth for the future. Together, the signs say “justice/ equality, forever.”

The colors on the painting are saturated and bright, signifying light, a key need for the Deaf to thrive, since they are visual people. The young girl is wearing white, signifying her innocence, while the older girl has blue jeans, signifying joy, and blond/ yellow hair, signifying hope. Both primary colors come together to make green – the color of the shirt she is wear, signifying her experience of both in her life.

De’VIA artworks are not only for the Deaf, but also for the hearing to understand Deaf perspectives and experiences. Dupor’s artwork is hopeful, but some others tend to express more darkness, oppression by the hearing, and loneliness. If you’re interested in learning more about De’VIA, do visit for a list of De’VIA artists.

Deaf Awareness Day at Six Flags

Here I am "clapping" in ASL or saying "yay!"

Here I am “clapping” in ASL or saying “yay!”

Yesterday was Deaf Awareness day at Six Flags Great America in Maryland. One of our class assignments is to go to two deaf events, so I decided to make this one of them. Most burdensome homework ever, not!

What makes a day at Six Flags Deaf Awareness day? Firstly, discounted tickets! Secondly, interpreters at every show and available throughout the park for anyone who needs them. Thirdly, and this is the most fun, lots of people signing throughout the park. I was pleasantly surprised that even the staff at the park could sign basic words such as “thank you” and “hello.” They must have had some basic training in Deaf culture and ASL prior to the event!

I went to Six Flags with three friends. All of us were hearing, but we made it a point to only use ASL throughout the day since there would be Deaf people around all day. This is not merely so we can practice our ASL, but also so we are able to connect with other Deaf people and respect Deaf space. This is more important than many hearing people realize. Imagine being the only one at a party in, say, Germany, who didn’t know German but was in a room half full of people who could speak English. How would you feel if those who knew English chose only to speak German to each other, even when you were around them? It would be considered rude by most.

An obligatory picture with Looney Tunes characters. Here, my friends are signing "I love you" in ASL.

An obligatory picture with Looney Tunes characters. Here, my friends are signing “I love you” in ASL.

Using ASL invited others who sign, deaf or hearing, to communicate freely with us. I realized this as I exchanged glances, polite greetings, and friendly smiles with other Deaf people as we walked through the park. As we stood in line, waiting for our turn to get on various rides, it also occurred to me that ASL is extremely useful in noisy environments. My voice wasn’t getting hoarse as it could have under the hot sun since I did not have to use it. I was also able to communicate with my friends from a much further distance. This is super helpful in a crowded space (and on the lazy river.) When my friend was ordering food at the counter and wanted to know if I wanted any fries, he could sign to me from across the restaurant where I was and did not have to yell or walk over!

At Six Flags, I watched a couple shows that were interpreted. At the first show, there were two interpreters since it was a play. The interpreters took turns interpreting the lines of the actors, playing various characters, and sometimes, signing in conversation with each other. This was a new experience for me. My eyes darted back and forth between the actors and the interpreters. Truth be told, the I could not make out what the actors were actually saying half of the time since the audio system was so poor, so I had to rely on the interpreters to follow the story. The second show had a segment that taught people how to line dance. It was interesting to watch the interpreters describe rhythms and steps using various classifiers.

It was wonderful to experience a taste of what it would be like if the world (aside from Gallaudet) was more Deaf-friendly. Six Flags has a Deaf Awareness day every summer, so if there’s one near you, do look out for it and check it out.

Life at Gallaudet

It’s been a long and rigorous, but wonderful week. I am taking two classes, so my classes go from 9-5pm, with a 10 minute morning break, 50 minute lunch break, and 30 minutes between my first and 2nd class. Following a long day of classes, I typically take a long 2-3 hour dinner break with friends, and then return to my dorm to do homework.

Like me (before I got here), you may be wondering what kind of homework an ASL class would have. We don’t memorize declensions and conjugations, but record videos of ourselves signing various narratives to practice the grammar and new vocabulary we learned that day. This is much harder than it sounds. I do several retakes when I make mistakes because the videos cannot be edited.

Some days, the homework requires us to communicate information real life situations—giving of instructions or directions, making plans with a friend, retelling what happened during the day, or describing a place. On other days, we retell fictional stories.

I enjoy retelling fictional stories the most. They seem to display the beauty and ingenuity of ASL in a wonderfully delightful way. A good story teller is much like an actor who is able to play three or four different roles at the same time by transitioning from one character to another without confusing the audience. What might this look like? Well, if a story teller is describing an interaction between two characters, for instance, he would index the two people in space – left and right, or even up and down for a tall and short person. Then, he would look towards the left to address one character and vice versa. Such is the art of role shifting. Role shifts are not only used in fictional stories. It is used when one is communicating any situation that involves more than one person and is thus, an important grammatical tool. I have not been able to do this intuitively yet, but hopefully, I will be able to before I leave Gallaudet!

There is a strict “no voice” policy in class, and even during breaks. If one is caught using his or her voice without any signs, the teacher could ask the student to leave the class. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, this is so we are able to use ASL as often as possible and become more fluent. Secondly, it is rude in Deaf Culture to be using one’s voice without signing within a Deaf Space, if one knows ASL. Deaf Space is defined as any space inhabited by a Deaf person (even though the term has also come to be used to denote architecture that are specially designed for the Deaf). My teacher is Deaf, so using our voices would be akin to talking behind her back. If everyone in the classroom is hearing an using our voices, it would be polite to start signing as soon as she walks in, even if we are not directly conversing with her.

It has definitely a challenge to communicate in ASL all the time, but everyone I’ve met on campus has been extremely patient with me, even the ladies who work at the cafeteria. If I don’t know a sign for something, I fingerspell the word and ask someone what the sign for the word is.

It’s also been great to meet people from all walks of life who are learning ASL for so many different reasons. Among my new friends are a seminarian and priest who are preparing to enter Deaf ministry, a couple of aspiring interpreters, a teacher, an audiologist, a student pursuing a Ph.D. in linguistics, a mom with a daughter who became deaf due to a severe illness, and a Deaf teacher from Nepal who teaches at a Deaf school. I also met a Deaf student who’s observing my class as part of her coursework for her Masters degree in education — she hopes to be an ASL teacher. I’m looking forward to getting to know all these interesting people more in the coming weeks.



Gallaudet – There is no other place like this in the world

Gallaudet UniversityI arrived at Gallaudet University at about 7pm yesterday, after a long 2-day drive from South Bend. As I drove through the gates of the university, I was greeted by banners that said, “Gallaudet University – There is No Other Place Like This in the World.” I must admit feeling a little nervous as I entered the campus. There is indeed no other place like this in the world. Gallaudet is the only Deaf university in the world where American Sign Language is the vernacular. As I pulled up to the guard post, a cheerful African American security guard greeted me in ASL. I didn’t know if she could hear, so I signed “I NEW HERE. DORM WHERE?*” It occurred to me that this was it. I was geographically entering a Deaf World!

The Deaf World is a milieu where those with deafness identify themselves as “Deaf,” with a capital “D,” and tend to see deafness as intrinsic to their identity. The majority of the Deaf were born profoundly deaf, or lost their hearing at a young age before they learned a language. American Sign Language is their native language and the language from which Deaf culture emerges. The Deaf identify themselves as a linguistic minority, culturally bound by the use of sign language, rather than a disabled community. To be part of the community, one need only know ASL and be part of a visually-driven culture. Whether one has hearing, deafness, or is hard of hearing, does not matter – many hearing children who are born to Deaf parents, for instance, are part of this world.

I’m not a fluent signer, so I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to communicate and would have to bring a pen and paper everywhere, or type out sentences in English on my phone. But everyone I’ve met thus far have been very patient and willing to fingerspell** the english word for signs I do not know. With the help of many kind souls, I acquired my student I.D. and parking permit, then checked-in to my dorm room.

DoorbellI haven’t had a chance to explore the campus yet, but hope to do so soon. Thus far, I’ve been struck by how similar the campus is to other college campuses, but also different in so many ways. I will go into more details in a future post, but for now, here’s a picture of the “doorbell” by my dorm room’s door. Instead of producing a sound, it causes the ceiling light in my dorm room to flash once when one presses it. To annoy someone, press it repeatedly and cause the light to flicker! And there you go — a great alternative for any of you who’s always had a problem hearing the doorbell.

Some helpful notes:

*ASL is sometimes glossed as English words in caps, i.e. “HELLO.” Glosses can be awkward since they tend to render as poor English. They might also perpetuate the false idea that ASL is English, but with broken grammar, and thus, not a “real language.” I will be glossing ASL on this blog since there’s no other way to write ASL, but I hope that my readers will remember that such glosses are not ASL proper since ASL’s grammar is indicated not merely in hand signs, but facial expressions and classifiers.

**Fingerspelling is typically used for acronyms, proper nouns such as names, cities, brands. But sometimes, it is also used to translate the meaning of a sign for people like me, who don’t yet know it!