Monday, December 20, 2010

ASL, Revisited

As I think I've written on this blog before, one of my biggest qualms about getting the CI was that it would represent a literal rejection of myself, a capitulation to the idea that I wasn't good enough to lead my life just as I was. In making my decision, I felt like I was casting aside the "deaf" part of my identity, which hurt regardless of the struggles associated with it. Six months later, however, I find that certain aspects of that identity will always endure, irrespective of whether or not I can hear. Sign language, especially, lingers with me in gratifying and unexpected ways.

I don't know how to classify my attitude about ASL before the CI. It had always somehow seemed like a crutch, a reminder of my inability to communicate like everyone else. I grew up with virtually no other deaf people in my life, and in my awkward preteen and adolescent years using my hands to converse only emphasized how different I felt from the world around me. Now, even though I am still far from an auditory communicator, I'm a skilled enough lipreader (and, increasingly, my CI is a helpful enough tool) that I've been able to distance myself considerably from ASL. When I am not in class, days pass in which I see no sign, in which I get along reasonably well (if not perfectly) in one-on-one interactions without it. As my hearing progresses, I find myself feeling more and more linked to the hearing world.

And yet, I am not. Not entirely. This has less to do with the fact that I will likely always need interpreters or other communicative assistance for some situations (and might as well accept it), and more to do with the fact that sign is wired into who I am. Now that I've experimented with other options, and come to see ASL as a bit more of a personal choice than a strict necessity, I feel freer to embrace its charm. I think in English and prefer to speak most of the time, but I cannot abandon the wonderfully deaf part of myself. Oddly enough, the CI has made this clearer than ever.

As much as I'm learning to be auditory, the truth is that I'm predominantly a visual learner. I retain information better when I see it - as with sign rather than mere lipreading. When I introduce myself to strangers, I find myself tempted to fingerspell and then give my sign name, and have them do so in return. Ditto for when other people do not understand what I say; surely I will make myself clear if I only spell it out? My hands writhe and itch by my side. A few times, absurdly, I've started to fingerspell to strangers before I've checked myself. (For the record, I've come to think that everyone should be able to fingerspell at the very least. It would make life infinitely easier.) When I am across a noisy room from a friend, I impulsively want to wave, to sign; shouting feels ridiculous, pointless, and tires me out besides. Sound notwithstanding, I cannot divorce myself from these inclinations.

When I settle down with my writing, sometimes I cannot think of the word that I want, at least not in English; however, I often find that I can sign its exact concept, its exact nuance. I lean back at my desk making sweeping gestures into the air, willing the English version to come. ASL, in all honesty, was my first language, and maybe this only comes across at such moments. Sometimes, when I am alone, I converse with myself using my hands. They become extensions of my thought.

Most importantly, though, sign language is what often defines many of my closest relationships. I've come to realize that, however comfortable I feel with lipreading a person, I often do not feel completely at ease with him/her unless he/she signs. I associate lipreading with strain, hyper-attention to detail, and continuous guesswork and exertion. Under such circumstances, it's possible to communicate well, but it's very difficult to relax. It's a subconscious association at times, but often the people with whom I feel most myself are the ones who sign, giving me confidence and dispelling my tension. Speech can make me feel trapped, painfully aware that I am at a disadvantage compared to my hearing peers, and confined in my ability to make friends only with the people I can lipread well. (Moving forward, I'm interested to see how the CI influences this.) But ASL is like a comfort food or a favorite book by the fire: in its presence, I can exhale and unwind.

Communication, clarity, security: regardless of whether I can hear or not, I've come to realize that I have the sort of fondness for ASL that stems from its being a part of my identity. It's hard to explain this to some hearing people, who, upon asking "Can you lipread?" and receiving my affirmative "Yes," ask no further questions about my communicative means and do not seem to wonder after my visual, secret self. For indeed ASL belongs to the most private part of me; perhaps this is part of why I avoided displaying it more publicly at a younger age. Or perhaps it was because sign language was too often questioned, too often stared at, too often made fun of or used as the brunt of crude jokes. Too often in my childhood, other kids would mock me with empty hand gestures and made-up signs. Even now, I find that my peers too often display interest in only the "obscene," "amusing," or "random" signs that add entertainment value to their lives, rather than true communicative meaning. (This is true for any language, I think.) If I have been reserved about sign, perhaps it is partly because I've gotten tired of this horseplay.

As I grow older and become a more skilled communicator in a variety of ways, and as I discover new horizons with the CI, I realize all of this more articulately. My identity with ASL is a quieter, more self-contained sort than that waved about by the strictly nonverbal, Deaf crowd, but it suits me well. Even if I woke up to hear perfectly one day, I don't think I could ever shun sign language completely. And that's reassuring.

Finally, one of my friends passed along this link not too long ago:

Even though I admittedly sometimes dream of nothing more than reducing my dependence on ASL and interpreters (again, there's something tricky about it being a choice), reading this article was sweet and satisfying. If more people are learning sign language, if more people are considering a perspective, communicative means, and experience of the world so different from their own, then all the better. I used to be one to scoff at hearing people's naive and overly romanticized notions of ASL being "breathtaking" and "like hands dancing," but in the end, there's no language like it.

1 comment:

  1. This is incredibly deep and eloquent...I've been too impatient to blog recently and that, combined with conversations with people, is really what makes me think about this kind of stuff.

    My relationship with ASL is a lot shallower and shorter than yours, but I also feel like it has a physical power over you that just isn't the same as spoken languages. Certain things just make so much sense in ASL, so much sense to your body. 'Cuz really, repeating "he said" and "she said" is so much less eloquent. Though I must admit to liking "funny" signs, I also wanted to share with you that I used to sign things over and over when I didn't remember a word. For the longest time I had trouble remembering "biblioteca" in Spanish and I would just sign library over and over by my side as my mind went blank...really odd, since I've known that word since 7th grade. (I'm rather out of practice now in ASL, just like I am in Spanish...) Or sometimes a sign and its word popped into my head simultaneously, linked to one another. Thought it might be interesting to hear =P

    Cheers to being proud of your ASL.