Monday, September 26, 2016

Different Signed Languages; Same Passion to Connect

Note: It is wonderful how the signed languages are different between countries as the spoken languages also are.  Fascinating also is that even though England and Australia are English-speaking countries, their signed languages are totally different.  There is British Sign Language (BSL) and Auslan!  I had to resort to lip reading when conversing with Deaf Australians and luckily they knew the ASL alphabet and spelled out English words. -Heather "Hex" Withrow
19 year-old Heather sits on the grass with a beautiful red Russian church with spires rising out of the background. The setting is remote, grassy and there are trees behind the church. This was on the grounds of the spring that feeds into the Volga River.  The Volga is Russia's largest and longest river and the "life of Russia", the beginning of history in Russia.
Photo taken in 1995.

My first time traveling outside of North America was a memorable one, it was with an educational group exchange visit during summer 1995 in the Moscow, Russia area by MIUSA (Mobility International USA). In our group, there were three Deaf students total, a blind boy, two used wheelchairs, one had epilepsy, and the others were typical students. I was newly 19 years old and had just finished my freshman year at Gallaudet U. I’ll talk about communication here, figuratively a little square inch out of  a bigger painting of experience that this trip was.  It was during this trip I had a handful of opportunities to gesture and converse with Deaf Russian citizens. In my trip journal, I wrote in such a naive and upbeat 19 year-old chatter but what was obvious then and still is something I enjoy now is that I love the challenge of communicating with other people without an initial mutual language between us.  
The American delegation, student with or without various disabilities, dressed up as land animals, improvised our costumes from what we could find in nature.  The Russians were the sea creatures (not pictured) and were a hilarious sight! I was an ape, and am crouching in the front of the group in this picture at our campsite along the Volga River.
 Photo taken August 1995.

We found a lot of deaf people in Moscow’s Red Square, many were selling souvenirs, and we met a guy in his 40’s whose name I know I got wrong but we’ll call him “Tis”.  It was not easy but a rewarding challenge working with gestures. We started to pick out each other’s signs so that it became a mixture of gestures, ASL and Russian sign language!  At one point we had our ASL-spoken English interpreter, Russian-English interpreter, Tis, and us Deaf American students in a circle along the side of the Red Square. Our English-speaking group leaders wanted to pass a message along to Tis, the Russian-English interpreter was no use since the Russian she knew was spoken and not signed.  The message was spoken in English, translated to ASL to us and we gestured and signed to Tis; and his response went back through us. Fascinating!
Heather and "Tis" in the Red Square. St. Basil's Cathedral is in the background.
Photo taken August 1995.

Another ASL and Russian sign language crash experience was when everyone in our exchange group was sent home with different host families for just one night, one of the Deaf students and I were sent home with a Deaf couple who also had a Deaf roommate. We had a hearty meal in their humble kitchen, which of course, had potatoes peeled with the new veggie peeler I gifted the mom and bottles of Coca-Cola purchased earlier at a street kiosk.  We stayed up most of the night gesturing, picking up each other’s signs and looking up the Russian word for that English word and vice versa.  We were bummed this was just one night, still it was yet another profound experience during my Russia trip.

Three American students, Heather, Tracie and Edo, and two Russian men; all are Deaf.
The guys were much friendlier than they appear in this photo and were the ones Edo and I chatted with all night with Peter's wife. Peter is in the leather jacket.
I'm on the far left. Photo taken August 1995.

Over the years, I went on to participate in the Deaflympic Games, where the world, with its many different signed languages, was brought together in one place.  I’ve gone on to visit and gesture with deaf citizens in other countries during my travels. Meetings with Deaf people were pre-arranged but often we just somehow find Deaf people by luck.  It helps when we sign amongst each other making us visible and then signs of our sighting travel fast through the Deaf community in the area. The first of all the communication barrier ascents, profound due to it’s newness to me, was in Russia where something awoke within me; I felt I was born again.  The fire within me liked very much the oxygen that I was in the midst of.
"Fish-eye" sketch in blue ink of a cozy bath house from my Russia 1995 journal.
August 1995.

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