Brief Reflections on Connecting with Deaf Strangers

One of my favorite parts about being deaf is the instant - and unique - sense of community it can create, wherever I go.

I lived in the UK for two years, and although (as far as I know and ever discovered) I was the only signing deaf student at Oxford, where I was studying, every time I had the opportunity to meet fellow deaf people, especially other American expats, in London it was a highlight of my week. These deaf and signing expats took me into their lives and introduced me to other people and hosted gatherings and outings in various parts of the UK, with a connectedness and a hospitality I probably would never have found so naturally among another group of randomly-connected hearing people.

I remember one trip I took with a hearing friend to Albania, where I wound up (long story) being introduced to a wonderful hostel owner whose long-term partner was an interpreter, and being whisked out at night to a friendly Albanian deaf club where we both made our best efforts at signing in Albanian sign language (!!) with a group of locals. A couple of deaf folks from Finland and Sweden and the United States were there, too, and we all worked together to figure out how to communicate around our lack of a shared, common language. I discovered then that a common language doesn’t actually matter as much as people think it does, as long as people are willing to be creative, gesture, look silly, make mistakes, smile, learn, and still try and try again, for the sake of grasping something – even something small – about the other. Of course, it wasn’t perfect or seamless, and there were still barriers, but being able to learn about other deaf people’s lives despite being continents apart in terms of upbringing and experience still felt magical.

I visited China about a year later and a deaf friend put me in touch with some of her other deaf friends (two Chinese friends and one American) who lived in Beijing and Shanghai. When I was in town, those wonderful people came and met me and showed me around and told me about life in China, about what it was like to be deaf in various parts of this country. They came despite distance across crowded cities, despite long rides on public transportation and the busy demands of their regular lives, all for the sake of connecting and learning about each other and signing about our respective experiences. Also, just sheer hospitality. One new Chinese friend did all this despite not speaking any English at all – we communicated via the “translate” function on WeChat, the Chinese version of WhatsApp, messaging back and forth in mismatched English and Chinese to figure out where to meet and how. When we did meet, though, again our shared sense of deafness, and of signing, allowed us to figure out some way to communicate. The other two I met did know ASL, and discovering my language in such a far-flung, unexpected place cast a warmth over that entire trip.

The deaf people I’ve had the privilege to meet in various places give me faith in human connection and community. I know my experience isn’t unique, either. I’ve had other deaf friends tell me stories about traveling through diverse places – Ireland, Italy, various other parts of Europe, Ethiopia, South Africa, India, China, Mexico, and of course Canada and the United States – and encountering the incredible hospitality and friendliness of new deaf connections and hosts. Often we’ll find that we know someone in common, wherever we are, and wind up swapping stories about that person or that place. We chat about shared experiences, hopes, dreams, and everyday occurrences. To deaf people, this intense interconnectedness is not news. To hearing people, it might be. I believe hospitality among strangers is possible anywhere, but I doubt that hearing people encounter it, within their culture, as often or as easily as I do with other deaf folks. A Chinese-speaking hearing person trekking to meet an English-speaking American, an hour across Shanghai, on short notice on a Sunday? It might happen, but I doubt it would have felt as natural or as joyous as when a deaf friend-of-a-friend did this to take me out to tea. Deaf people tend to reach out toward each other. This international sense of community transcends borders, nationalities, and even languages. Our shared sense of deafness, and our shared experiences in a hearing world, eliminate many of the other differences and boundaries we might otherwise feel. It is an altogether pleasant way to connect, among many other pleasant ways to connect with strangers.

Of course, this also happens in America, closer to my current home. Every time I drop in on a new city nowadays, every time I pass through a new place or return to an old one, I feel like I have a deaf friend-of-a-friend to meet and spontaneously talk with. I did this earlier this year in DC, in Boston, in Austin. I did it just last week, and I’ll do it again later this month. This sense of connectedness doesn’t need to happen in physical places, either. Deaf people put me in touch with their other friends they think I would hit it off with, and straight away – we email, we text, we set up times to have Skype conversations and establish a distance friendship, all without ever meeting in person. Technology now enables this, which I love. And this sense of a global network and community, bound by deafness and various sign languages, is extraordinary. The only things I’ve encountered like it (though, for me, they are not quite “like” it due to linguistic modality and communication) might be shared faith, or perhaps certain sets of shared institutional ties. I live surrounded by hearing people most of the time, as all deaf people do. Perhaps this is why, when I encounter another deaf person somewhere doing something interesting, something inside me startles in excited recognition. There that person is! Like me, in a key perceptual sense, and doing things that I am proud of, that I feel I can understand. Many other things about us may be different – and I also have many hearing friends I feel extraordinarily close to, based on other factors – but the network of shared deafness goes on and on.

With this global community of signing peoples, and also of signing allies, it’s not like all communication barriers go away. It’s not like all differences go away, or like instant friendship or rapport always arise, or outweigh existing close ties with other non-deaf people. They don’t. But, I think, we still have a shared and deep-etched sense that this communication is worth it, despite any obstacles. That goes unspoken and unexplained. We often have a sense of striving for that connection, of having an elemental common experience of embodiment and beauty and struggle. So, here’s to surpassing difference, and language and nationality, within these unexpected signing connections – and here’s to all the conversations that haven’t happened yet, or been articulated in this all-too-short post.