The bell rings after a long lecture and I jump down the steps and wait patiently to ask my professor a question. While standing in the line, I smiled meekly at the people next to me as an indication that I would merely take one minute of the professor’s time. Staying true to my hint, I did so and prepared to leave. As I was bundling up to stay warm, a student that was waiting in the line came up to me and asked, “Do you know sign language?”
Slightly taken back, I had to figure out the best way to answer the question. Yes, I do know sign language, but not to the extent that people expect me to know. Growing up, I was mainstreamed in oral schools and oral language is all I have ever known. As much I want to say, “Yes! I am proficient in sign language,” the reality is that it was in the best interest for me to not learn sign language so that I had no other choice but to learn English and only English despite uncomfortable struggles.
I admired the student’s curiosity and answered her question to the best of my abilities. Unfortunately, it was not always that easy. Growing up, public spaces were simply spaces where people stared at me; at least, that’s what my imagination told me. I felt the weight of scrutinizing eyes peering at my ears from strangers who would sometimes do a pity smile or look away in embarrassment and shame. For instance, one time, I was in the elevator with my family when a looming, tall adult was observing me from the corner of her eyes. Noticing the woman and my discomfort, my mother stepped in and simply stated, “She has cochlear implants.” No questions were asked, but it was obvious that her body language was pleading for an answer to quell her intense desire to know.
Over the years, different occasions have arisen, creating opportunities for positive, and not so positive, interpretations of people’s discourse and behavior. While I am now comfortable with people’s beseeching looks because truth is, I do it unconsciously to others too, I still am hypersensitive to comments and messages made, whether directly stated or not. I recollect one time when I was having a conversation with an older man. At one point, I could not understand what he saying. He got irritated, stared at me and spoke slowly while enunciating, “Watch my mouth closely.” While he may not even remember this occasion, I still do. I remember where the conversation took place, what the weather was like that day and how he transformed his manner of speaking through dumbing down his words. I remember becoming tearful and having to use all of my strength and energy to not crumble right there and then. I remember how hot my face became, indicating that it turned bright tomato red out of embarrassment. What bothers me the most is the fact that I remember, but he most likely does not.
Similar instances have occurred where people get impatient and resort to using booming voices, which, contrary to the popular beliefs, do not actually help whatsoever. These instances, to me, were indirectly compared to other instances that were more direct. For instance, during the fall of my senior year, I began to indulge in reading about Martha Vineyard as a way to immerse myself into the deaf culture in hopes of finding a sense of belonging. I found it incredibly fascinating that those who lived on the island all used sign language, regardless if they were deaf or not, because it was their culture that resulted from having a large amount of deaf people. In other words, deaf people were simply treated as any other human beings and they were embraced for who they were. Excited with all of the information that I had just obtained about the deaf culture through reading about this island and other psychological studies, I began to talk about the deaf culture with one of my friends. When I finished rambling excitedly on about the values and beliefs found in deaf and hearing cultures, she looked at me with a straight face and said, “The deaf culture does not exist.” Safe to say, I was extremely dumbfounded and offended. She essentially erased all of my memories and experiences and deemed them invalid. What was more shocking was the fact that she had the audacity to say that to me — a deaf person.
To this day, I still have not stood up to the older male and my friend from high school. There are also countless numbers of other people that I have not yet advocated myself in front of. Thinking back, there were so many opportunities to change at least one person’s mind but did not due to embarrassment and shyness. Not that I am saying that people are inherently judgmental or discriminative — the fact is that most of my personal experiences with people have stemmed from misunderstandings and stereotypes. It is easy to quickly assume that what works best for one person works for other people. While screaming at your hearing-impaired grandma may work, it does not for me. While slowly and carefully enunciating words for a person lip-reading may help, it does not resonate well with me. I have a long way to go to make an impact and teach others how to tolerate differences to the best of their abilities, but at least I am making a stepping stone by publishing this article and poem. I will get there one day. One day, I will stroll down the streets knowing that people’s glances and stares are out of recognition and acceptance, not out of sympathy and pity.
“Your voice is beautiful.”
“I’m so proud of you.”
“Do you know sign language?”
“But are you really deaf?”
“Would you be able to hear me scream if you take off your CIs?”
Would I have heard these statements and questions in a parallel world where I am not deaf?
Most likely not.
Would I have experienced high levels of shame during public speaking?
Would I have been more extroverted?
The pool full of uncomfortable experiences
have accumulated beyond its brink
at this point in time.
there are air bubbles
occupied by character-forming instances.
In these bubbles hold the truth.
I remain resilient.
With resilience comes self-acceptance.
I will get there one day.
There will be a day where I wake up
and the sunlight will be hitting my face
ever so perfectly and I’ll realize,
this is who I am supposed to be.
Day by day,
the pool overflows and the uncomfortable experiences
drains out from my mind.
From the bottom emerges the character-forming instances
becoming more prominent.
I am not perfect,
nor will I ever be,
but I’m getting there.
I will be who
I would have been in a parallel universe —
not afraid to speak out —
not afraid to make mistakes.
I’m a work in progress.
I’m a pottery piece slowly being molded.
Time from time,
a crack appears
and I’m not as strong.
layers are piled on
and I’m more durable than before.
I’m a pool.
I’m a pottery piece.