Reflections on Oxford, Nine Months Later

I find that I sometimes write best in airports, on airplanes, or in transit, especially when I am traveling long distances alone. I’m not sure why this is: I suspect something about witnessing landscape and people, about the transient state of being and reflection that travel brings, prompts me to write.

So, under these circumstances, it seems apt to take this time, during a bout of transatlantic travel, to reflect on where I’ve been and where I am going. I am currently en route to spend a few weeks back at Oxford and in the UK, to “officially” (and finally!) graduate from my MSc program in Higher Education from last year – but also to pay the place and some dear friends another visit and get a greater sense of closure. I’ve been away from Oxford for almost a year now, and am still reflecting on the place, what it means to me and to others, and how it remains with me. The opportunity to spend two years there was something that changed me in ways I am still discovering – and it was also an experience that felt extraordinarily strange and difficult to return from. Oxford feels not quite like anywhere else, like a sliver of time disjointedly excerpted from the past but still stirringly present, a location outside of ordinary time and place, as it were. (This is something that warrants a longer essay or longer piece of writing, once I can get to it.) Going from being an American expat, to being an American once again, and experiencing my bit of reverse culture shock and also of readjustment and that feeling of time marching onward, into new places and new experiences, has made for a bit of an emotionally topsy-turvy year. In the midst of it all, though, I’m thankful.

Attending Oxford was something I, a couple of years ago, would never have thought I’d do. Living abroad, period, was something I would never have anticipated. So, without further ado, here’s a scattered list of lessons I learned from Oxford:

·      Always be curious. Embrace the extraordinary. Embrace the ordinary, too, and find how that, in itself, can also be extraordinary.

·      You can often learn much, much more from deep and thoughtful conversations with your friends than you can from sitting in class.

·      Recognizing who your friends are, and investing in them, is better than maintaining only a network of superficial interactions.

·      In order to have better conversations and connect with other interesting people, think about how to ask better questions. Follow up. Listen. Be free to wonder. Embrace unexpected thoughts.

·      The people with whom you can give voice to your weirdest, most intense and absurd thoughts are likely the people with whom you will be lasting friends.

·      Travel teaches you about yourself. It teaches you a heck of a lot about other people, too. Some travel experiences can, and will, create lasting ties.

·      It is possible to run back to your room from a day of studying, throw down your stuff, and get ready for a black-tie formal dinner in less than 10 minutes. No sweat.

·      When asked to step into spaces that feel fancier, or more intimidating, than anywhere else you’ve been before, just try. Stepping into a sense of self-assurance doesn’t happen overnight, but it starts with believing that you, like everyone else, are a work in progress and will grow eventually.

·      Even other extremely smart, impressive people are just that – people. Recognize that. Moreover, recognize that everyone has something valuable and interesting to offer.

·      Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something and try to learn from those who do. Keep asking questions, even about things that seem wildly outside your area of expertise. Resist the fear of “looking stupid.” Everyone has this fear.

·      Surround yourself with people who don’t take themselves too seriously. Don’t take yourself too seriously, either. But do be serious about the right things, and recognize that in others.

·      Embrace joy, even (or especially) in the small things.

·      When you want to make change in your immediate environment, do it. When you want your friends to learn sign or communicate differently, ask them! Don’t be afraid to be your fullest self, even if that means uncomfortable self-disclosure.

·      It is okay to ask your friends for help or to recognize when you are having a hard time and need a hand. Unexpected benefits, or new relationships, can arise from the midst of struggle.

·      Don’t forget where you came from, and don’t forget those who helped you get from A to B. A nudge from one other person can change a life.

·      Be spontaneous, more than you might be naturally inclined to otherwise. Embrace new opportunities and new places. Recognize when you might not be able to do something again, and make the most of it as a learning experience.

·      You never lose anything by putting yourself out there, submitting your work, applying for something, or talking about a new idea. Success may not immediately follow – but, why not? There’s always tomorrow.

·      If something seems interesting to you, show up and go for it. Don’t let accessibility or “will there be ASL interpreters?” be an excuse not to do things. It is often possible – yes, sometimes with a cost – to figure things out.

·      Conversely, recognize when something is too much of an energy investment, or when something will not work out. It is okay to say no, okay to go your own way. Some things are not meant to be, and that is fine.

·      Recognize how institutions (even old, ridiculously venerated ones like Oxford) are not perfect. Resist their glamour and their brand. Work to change them anyway, but still take care of yourself.

·      When faced with entrenched resistance to change, such as change for accessibility practices, advocate for yourself anyway. Find the people to support you. They are out there, and they will.

·      If you’re the first deaf person to do XYZ, so what? Go do it anyway.

·      Work hard and be responsible and think about what matters, but still, sometimes: dance. Go out to a pub and stay up late. Talk. Say yes to wild ideas (but remember how to say no, too). Engage with others you don’t understand or agree with. Try out their ideas, and try out yours too. This is sometimes how you figure things out.

The list goes on. I am still discovering how these insights, and more, continue to impact my life and change how I interact with the world, even in places far from the Dreaming Spires. See you very soon, Oxford!

Starting From Square One

I’m starting a blog again, in short because in the past I’ve found that blogging is a prime way to get myself to write, and also a prime way to circulate ideas. Some of my previous blogs have been rather content-specific; a few have been for sharing travel experiences, and I also kept a long-running blog about my personal experience of getting a cochlear implant. (Check it out here if you’re interested.) Here, however, I plan to address a broader range of explorations relating to deafness, language, literature, access, communication, and how those tricky topics figure into how we all live in the world. I’ve already learned, through conversation with others and through oft-fortuitous happenstance, that many of my thoughts and experiences as a deaf individual are not unique – even if I may once have thought they were. Others also share this complex subject position of straddling worlds, in their own ways, and of trying to figure out how to live and write and communicate and connect in between visual and auditory spaces. Writing about these complications, I’ve come to believe, is essential.

I’m going to start this blog from square one. Literally. Let me explain: lately I’ve been thinking about how to articulate the overall trajectory I have experienced in the past year, as I started my PhD, and how to express the complex dynamics and feelings this time has stirred in my life. Last August, I did something that I have done twice before, but that has always brought with it a healthy share of growing pains: I moved to a new city where I knew no one, and started a new academic program at a new university where I was the only signing deaf student. Somehow circumstances have never aligned in my life to take me to academic settings with many other deaf students and faculty – or perhaps another truth is that my academic interests to date have tended to range beyond universities where there is an established d/Deaf presence. C’est la vie. In whatever case, I was eager to start my graduate program this year, and also eager to take classes with professors at Emory and meet other graduate students. This move to a new place came with feelings of excitement and discovery. But it came with a unique sense of loss, too.

Over the last year, I’ve tried to devise a way to describe this feeling of transition, and for me it truly boils down to: Starting from Square One With Sign. This feeling is like a profound communicative homesickness. When I move to a new place and start from square one with relationships, I am experiencing nothing out of the ordinary; I am realizing how, in the hyper-transient modern world, putting down new roots is a common and challenging experience. For me, though, starting from square one is also essentially a question of communication and identity. When I move to new places where no one knows me and (virtually) no one signs, I find myself intensely missing the signing friends and family I’ve left behind. I miss their knowledge of how to communicate effectively. I miss the clarity and ease they bring me. Transitions are difficult for anyone, but I’ve found that I feel a particular anxiety about communication, about how I will sustain a healthy sense of myself while I work to find a new, accessible sense of community. My deaf identity becomes more salient to me during these periods: despite the speaking/lipreading work I do, and my ongoing confidence in my ability to navigate the hearing world, the truth is I need sign to feel like myself. Lipreading is exhausting, oral conversation after too long is alienating, and explaining myself over and over again starts to feel like a Sisyphean task.

Square One manifests itself in other ways: even if new hearing acquaintances are curious and willing to learn to communicate with me, they still don’t know anything. We still need to start with this is what it’s like to be deaf and this is how you fingerspell your name. (Yes, I know other deaf people rightly argue that it is not always the deaf person’s job to do this kind of educational work. I may write about this subject another time: in short, I’ve sometimes found, if I don’t work to create the kind of communication I want, who will? This is another strong argument in favor of widespread ASL classes, which unfortunately are not always easily available. More on that another time.) Teaching all this, to a new group of hearing people, is not easy. How many times can I teach the ABCs and basic greetings? How long can I walk when I just want to run? When do I teach, engage, and keep trying, and when do I let others go and educate themselves? The task of shifting people’s habits of communication, and carving out a deaf space for myself, feels overwhelming. At the end of the day, I give up and crawl into bed with my books.

I first experienced this feeling of Starting from Square One when I started college. It was a shock for me then: I moved away from my family for the first time and realized I would be living 24/7 among – hearing people! Who had no idea how to communicate with me! (In retrospect, I spent most of my undergraduate career trying, with varying degrees of success, to figure out how to address this question.) Cue that feeling, redux, when I moved to start a graduate program in the UK. Cue it, once again, when I moved to another unfamiliar region and started my PhD in Atlanta this past August. Through these various transitions, I’ve become more and more okay with admitting two things to myself: first, that starting over with communication is absolutely no fun, and second, that it is important and necessary. I am deaf, and I can and will present myself as such. There’s no way out, but there can be a way in, an opportunity to make inroads and connect with others in different and creative ways.

Because starting over does work out, I have learned. I’ve always been provided with the right friends and the right people in my life, during times of transition. I’ve discovered a faith that people – certain people – can and will step up, will learn how to become more accommodating, and will form solid and communicative relationships. The trick, at the beginning, is to be patient. Who are these people? Where are they? How will we connect? No way to find out, except to show up. For any introvert, this kind of social involvement is work. When communication barriers are also involved, it starts to feel like swimming upstream against a torrential current. Go to an informal social event (quite possibly without an interpreter if I didn’t have the chance to schedule one), talk to new people, many of whom may unwittingly present me with a maze of communicative obstacles, assert and advocate for myself all along the way? Sometimes I don’t have the energy. What’s more, sometimes it feels like the progress I make in these all-hearing spaces is woefully incremental. But, after various transitions, I can look back and say that change does come – if only with time, self-honesty, self-knowledge, grace, and a healthy dose of humor.

Will any future transition to another new, all-hearing setting be easier? I’m not sure. Perhaps this is another instance of The Way It Is. A large part also depends on the contexts I am in and the people I meet. But I also see promise for becoming better at setting my own agenda. Life as a deaf person in academia (or anywhere else) might be one chronic learning curve, but I’m fiddling with how to pursue the sense of purpose that I want in different places. The trick is figuring out how to lead, so that new hearing acquaintances become willing to try and follow…!

I spent a lot of time in Atlanta over the last year worrying about what it meant to start all over again. This was something I found difficult to explain to other friends, at times, without sounding overly melodramatic. But the first climb, the first hill, often seems like the worst, before the legs warm up and one finds a satisfying sense of rhythm. Now, daily challenges may remain – including, you know, getting through this entire PhD thing! – but I have my feet under me again. My eyes are up toward the horizons ahead.

Special thanks to those who have made it far beyond Square One with me this year (and in various other years past). Squares Five, Ten, Fifty (and beyond) are certainly much more fun!