The baseball game was the least interactive part of my visit. People were in groups, and I was too intimidated to break in and converse. Instead, I enjoyed the game and observed the people around me. The sun was shining, there was a light breeze, and I sat on the grass to watch.
The opposing team was hearing. Gallaudet’s team is deaf and hard of hearing, as I noted when a crowd of bystanders yelled, “MITCHELL!” over and over, louder and louder, and eventually a player turned and waved at them, to their laughter. “I TOLD you he was hard of hearing,” someone said, to more laughter. My first Deaf humor. It was hysterical.
The opposition was your typical, very verbal, hearing team. At the lunch between the two games of the double-header, they spread into groups of two or three. Team and supporters were Caucasian. This seemed weird to my San Franciscan eyes, which are used to a great diversity of skin colors and ethnicities.
Gallaudet’s team was silent—excepting frequent voiced profanity.* Bystanders were intent on the game, although small ASL conversations flickered in my peripheral vision. At lunch, Gallaudet held a meeting then ate lunch in a group comprising Latino, Mediterranean, Asian, Caucasian, and Black members.** The hearing coach was Black. Supporters echoed this diversity.
There was a surprising amount of speech from the deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing faculty and students surrounding me. I was expecting less speech, and more sign. However, their use of speech allowed me to participate in more excellent humor—after an excellent scoring play by Gallaudet, a spectator shouted at the opposition huddle: “Talk all you want! Nobody’s gonna hear you!” I adore the self-aware irony and sass of that statement, and I am still laughing.
I did have a short conversation with a young man who taught me the sign “hot dog.” I think his name was Marshall:
[Robin:] Hi! How are you?
[Marshall:] Fine, you?
[Robin:] Happy. Hungry. I’m learning ASL. The sign for “h-o-t-d-o-g” is what?
[Robin:] Oh, I see. One hotdog and chips, please.
[Marshall:] Four dollars.
I pay the man.
[Marshall:] We’ll put it on the grill for you.
[Robin:] OK, thanks.
When I picked up my dog:
[Robin:] Yes, and I bought chips.
In retrospect, the visit generated a lot of thought.
I learned that similar signs are easily confused. Retroactively, I realize I signed, “I’m shopping for chips,” instead of “I bought chips.” Signing in class about my experience, I used “mother” instead of “woman” and “sleepy” for “sad.” This is totally unsurprising.
Although fluent ASL is liquid, lightspeed, and grammatically complex, my side of signed conversations was almost a pidgin: simple sentence structure, mostly nouns, little tense, complexity, or grammar. And I am SLOW.
The people I met at Gallaudet were mostly patient and friendly. I had a wonderful time. Although my conversations were simple, they were personally meaningful to me both because they necessitated facing insecurities and fears, and as always-to-be-remembered first conversations with Deaf people.
However, I did feel like an outsider, busting in on a private and beloved world. For so long, hearing people have tried to force Deaf people into a hearing world. Gallaudet is a Deaf person’s world, it is theirs, and it is precious—and here comes the hearing girl, trying to bust in. I can extend this to other Deaf gatherings easily. I recently read a blog discussing a Deaf pub event that so many hearing people showed up at in order to practice their ASL that a bunch of Deaf regulars couldn’t even get in the door!
So where do they draw the line, and how do us hearies know where it is, and respect it? Stick to the ones with open invitations to hearing folks who are learning ASL, for starters? (If any Deaf persons happen to read this, and have an opinion, please feel free to share it in the comments.)
So I was nervous, and remain so despite positive experiences. Nevertheless, I would like to attend more Deaf events, and hope I’ll have reason to become less concerned over time, as I become more familiar with the community and hopefully make some friends. If I want to advance in ASL, I need to go to events, practice sign, and get to know the Deaf community in my area.
And I find I do want to advance in ASL.
I decided to take the class after a discussion with a co-worker about his experience with ASL (thanks, Pete!). I’ve always been intrigued with the language, and watched signers in ignorant wonder.
I enjoy learning languages generally, and once spent an entire spring break studying English grammar for students of German. Additionally, I’m communicative, love working with my hands, and am immensely tactile.
All of these reasons and traits make me basically want to mainline ASL. I’ve become curious about Deaf culture. I find signing satisfying and fun. I practice sentences and grammar while walking down the street, in the shower, and waiting for the kettle to boil. I’ve been dreaming about sign for months.
I don’t know where ASL will take me, or if I’ll pursue interpreting. That’s a long road, but I think I might like to follow it someday. For now, I am highly alert for deaf people in my vicinity, hope to develop friendships and relationships within the Deaf community, and plan to continue classes in ASL.
*Those who know me know I am a great fan of the profane, and am frequently so myself.
**I say Black instead of African American because I don’t know if they were American or not. Washington D.C. has high numbers of black-skinned peoples from countries besides America. It seems more accurate to use the word “Black.” (Copyediting friends: discuss.)
[End of series.]