I remember the conversations I had with fellow students when I was studying to become a Sign Language interpreter.  I was immersing myself in deaf culture by going to public events, but I also had deaf roommates and was invited to quite a few parties and social gathers that others weren’t and I ended up hanging out a bit with another student whose husband was deaf, just to do a bit of triage.  Because anyone who has attempted to learn about another language/culture will tell you, there is nothing more humbling because you say and do the funniest and most embarrassing things in public going through that process.  It’s like being a small child all over again, except you’re not.  And you blush a lot.

But to me it was worth it because language is not separate from culture.  They are inextricably linked.  Language allows us to communicate the meaning and structure of culture which forms culture and around and around we go.  So learning vocabulary in a book just doesn’t cut it.  And being an interpreter takes that just that much farther because you have to become fluent in not only that language/culture in general, but in a great deal of the specifics because you have to understand all the nuances of that language and culture to take the meaning (meta message, contextual clues, subtext) and put that into the other.

And that’s where the conversations come in.  Because many of the students I studied with just could not understand why I would bother. Not because they didn’t think what I was doing was important or that it was relevant, they just didn’t see that there was any difference or culture to explore.  I mean, what other perspective is there than American, which is what we all are, right?  And we all see things the same way because we all live in the same place, right?  It took two years and a lot of people’s patience and some confrontations between them and Deaf community members for them to get it.  Most of them.  Some of them just never did.  Because not all cultures are the same, thy don’t see things the same way, they don’t speak about them the same way, and they don’t necessarily hold the same values or weight things in the same way.  Which doesn’t make them bad or wrong, they are just different.

What it came down to was, as much as the students meant well and their hearts were in the right place, they didn’t know what they didn’t know.  And they would come away from a conversation with a Deaf person feeling embarrassed and frustrated and angry because they were criticized for something they didn’t know and would say “But how could I have known that?”  And on the one hand they were right to ask that, because we don’t know what we don’t know.  But on the other hand they were missing a critical point, they should have gone into the situation with the perspective that there were things they didn’t know and an open mind to find those things and learn them.  Instead of just going ahead with preconceived notions of the world they should have opened themselves up to the adventure of new learning and experiences.  Because once you know that you don’t know, you have the ability to learn.  And it hurts less when you do….