I considered wearing ear plugs for the week. I thought it might help me better identify with those whose stories I’ve come to tell. I am in Taipei for the 2009 Summer Deaflympics, which begins with Opening Ceremonies on Saturday. I am with a group of volunteers, mostly Deaf, who have come to share God’s love with those they meet. More than 4262 athletes and officials from 85 countries are on hand for the 177 events that will take place. After spending the day yesterday with my new friends, I abandoned the idea of the ear plugs. I can no more mimic becoming Deaf than I can mimic becoming Chinese or African.
In just a few hours yesterday, I realized just how little I know about Deaf culture. Yes, I’ve had a handful of Deaf friends through the years, particularly in Middle School and High School. But I’ve never been a part of the Deaf world. I’ve never interacted with Deaf people on their terms … until yesterday.
My friends are helping me to understand what it means to be Deaf. One lesson came at the subway when I was trying to balance my purse, my notebook, an umbrella and a bottle of water. I put the cap of the water bottle in my mouth as I tried unsuccessfully to put the umbrella and notebook in my purse. “Help her,” my new friend Sarah signed to the young man beside me. He, who is hearing but knows sign language, smiled and took the bottle. “The Deaf help each other, “ Sarah explained.
And help each other they did. On our way to the Taipei Arena we were changing subway lines at the Taipei Main Station. Two Asian women, whom I assume were Taiwanese, noticed my friends signing about which direction to take. They were also Deaf and immediately stopped and offered to help. They went to the ticket counter and, through a combination of sign and verbal language, asked directions on our behalf . Then, they pointed us on our way.
On our final subway ride to the Taipei arena, my friends met three new Deaf friends – one English, one French, and one American who are serving as official Deaflympic volunteers. They also offered to show us the way and walked and talked with my friends all the way to the arena. Yes, the Deaf help each other.
Another lesson I learned is that the Deaf love stories, and all information is shared through a story. I learned this my first night in Taipei. I was met by three people – Sarah, Peter, and Timothy. Sarah and Timothy are both Deaf. Peter is hearing but has lived for many years in the Deaf world. As Peter went to meet others who were arriving, I stood outside with Sarah and Timothy. While I can say hello, goodbye, and thank you in about 15 different languages, I can only sign my name in ASL.
Still, Sarah was determined to communicate with me, and her first story was about landing in an airport. Sarah, who lives in Europe, has traveled all over the world as part of her work with the Deaf. She navigates the international hearing world smoothly and seamlessly. She told about landing at an airport and asking for directions to the next gate. The hearing man pointed the way and asked if she wanted a wheelchair. Sarah said, “I told him I’m Deaf, not crippled.” However, as she realized just how far it was between the two gates, she began to reconsider the wheelchair offer!
Sarah had information and insights about herself that she wanted to share with me. She chose to share it through a story in a way that I could understand. Communication through stories is how many of us, Deaf or hearing, learn best. It is through stories that many cultures share their deepest truths, their greatest fears, and their highest hopes. This week, I’m looking forward to learning and sharing the stories of the Deaf.
Stay tuned and travel light!