I got a little unrequested message on Instagram who this young beautiful woman, named Sonia, from Italy. She introduced herself to me and asked whether I know any Deaf stores, clubs, etc. in Asia. Sonia really caught my attention. She isn’t a Deaf traveler but the fact that she’s Hearing (referring to those who are not Deaf or Hard of Hearing), know Italian Sign Language (LIS) and would like to seek out Deaf communities while traveling was something that I’ve been looking for.
Other than missionaries, it’s not quite common to see Hearing people exploring different Deaf communities. Although there are many Hearing who know sign language or learning sign language through classes or online, there aren’t many who seek out Deaf communities when traveling around the world. She also tries to raise awareness about our Deaf culture while traveling. Not only does she share her stories and learning experiences on her Instagram posts and blog, but she also addressed about conscious travels. I am pretty thrilled to have Sonia participating for this series, Through Their Eyes.
My name is
I am a 22 years old girl from Italy. My mum is Italian, while my father is from Cameron, Africa. It’s a strange mix, as in Italy we don’t have that much “half black” people and I’m often mistaken for Brazilian! I grew up with my mother only, and we created a strong connection. She is more travel addicted than I, we always try to meet and catch up with our lives in different countries!
Her blog & Social Media
How did you became interested in our Deaf culture and sign languages? Many Hearings learn sign language but sometimes didn’t have the time to continue on learning - what really keeps you going?
The first time I saw someone using their hands in order to communicate was at a Yoga gathering when I was 13 only. I was approached by a woman, asking me if I wanted to spell my name in Italian Sign Language (LIS). Everything was really fun and interesting, but I needed to be at least 18 to actually study Sign Language, therefore I quickly forgot about my experience.
Years later, while visiting my mum in Italy, I come across a Sign Language course and decided to apply. I did remember my previous experience with Signs, but I had no idea it would turn out to be that important in my life. After successfully completing the first level, I decided to enrol for the second one. And, when I finished that course too, I thought it would be a waste of time to stop there, so I finally enrol for the third level!
After that, I was sure Sign Language was the path to follow!
At the end of my final level, I was asked to write a small thesis about my experience and my thoughts about Sign Language and the Deaf community, and about what I wanted to do in the future. It was my last level and my last year in Amsterdam, Netherlands (the city where I was living at the moment), and I was getting ready for a two years long trip, so my thoughts wandered to all those people born Deaf who weren’t lucky enough to grow up in an open minded system. Some countries, some schools and even some families don’t have the tools to grow and educate a Deaf child. But my concerns were about the countries, the schools and the families which wouldn’t open up their selves to the idea of educating Deaf children.
I travelled many times to Haiti, and there I had the chance to meet some Deaf people. They all had different stories but they were all coming from very hostiles backgrounds. When Deaf people are born in big cities, sometimes life can be easier. However, for people growing up in rural areas, so far away from anything, getting no help and not being able to connect with other Deaf people, life can be challenging. After that trip and after researching for my thesis, I decided I wanted to get to know more Deaf people and trying to be part of the Deaf Community.
How does knowing sign language benefits you while you travel?
Learning Signs is helpful for my everyday life. There are many funny things you can do once you know how to sign. Like talking while your mouth is busy at eating or while brushing your teeth, or talking to your friends when the music is too loud.
Besides that, Sign Language is something that passionate me. When I visit new places, I like to visit Deaf Café or Deaf Restaurant. I like learning new Signs and this keeps me busy at studying. I can improve every day and learn new things. I met wonderful people thanks to Sign Language, and discovered new places I wouldn’t even know about it.
Do you have any challenge or fear when meeting the Deaf community in other countries? If yes, what are they and how did you manage it?
I can’t hide sometimes I am a bit afraid of meeting new Deaf people. First of all, my signs aren’t perfect. I can sign in Italian, but I still make mistakes. My ASL is so basic that’s embarrassing and my International Sign Language vocabulary is limited to “Where are you from?” and “My name is Sonia”. When I meet someone else is mostly body gesture and fingerspell, and somehow things work out.
Unfortunately, I met some Deaf people who weren’t really open to me and they didn’t want to communicate with me. I will never know their reasons, and it’s hard at the beginning. However, I can understand they might not be open to the idea of a Hearing person learning Signs and generally speaking, we can’t get along with anyone!
What lessons did you learn from the Deaf communities around the world that changed your bias or perception about them?
Getting more in touch with the Deaf community helped me so much about changing my bias about Hearing people. I know this might sound weird, but it’s true! I met Hearing people were so annoying I couldn’t stand them, and some aspect or behaviour of them was simply pissing me off.
Then, I get to know the Deaf community and this helped me so much. I became way more calm and tolerant, and willing to listen more. Sometimes I need to ask a Deaf person to repeat many times before I can get what he’s saying. But he’s patient, waiting until I understand. This is urging me to study more and trying to improve my receptive skills.
What is one of the most profound experiences you have with the Deaf community abroad?
I had an amazing experience with my Deaf teacher, here in Australia. We had a strong connection while he was teaching me as well, but it was different once we finally met. We only saw each other through Skype for over one year, that’s why seeing each other in real life was such a great experience!
As a result of many coincidences, it happens to him to travel to Australia exactly when I was landing there. And even in the same city! We hang out many times and we were exchanging travel stories, talking about way of living and social problems in our country. It had a strong impact on me and it was different than simply meeting a Deaf person. It was getting to know a Deaf friend, together with his culture and his way of living life.
We were signing in Italian, and that made everything easier. I learned new Signs and that was a real way to improve my skills. I just wished we could have spent more time together but I know this will happen soon!
He introduced me to two other Deaf friends, who had different backgrounds and that was incredibly helpful as well. We hang out for a day and, at the end of the day, I realized I was chilling with three Deaf people, switching from ISL (International Sign Language) to AUSLAN (Australian Sign Language) to LIS and that was simply amazing. I couldn’t be more proud of myself. It made me thinking of my first homework where I had to Sign things like “My car is red” and then, there I was, talking about life in mixed languages with mixed people coming from mixed background. I was truly happy.
You’ve been traveling and meeting some Deaf people in other countries, does it helps shape your goals or plans for your future?
I consciously took this gap year from my studies because I wanted (and needed) to travel far away. I took this year to experiment and exercise my Signs and my vocabulary. To understand what I really liked. I wanted to dig deeper into the Deaf community, get more in touch with Deaf people and develop my abilities.
That’s why, every time I meet a Deaf person, I find myself thinking about my future.
I finally found something that is worth my hard work and my dedication. I can imagine myself, in the future, using Sign Language regularly, having many more Deaf friends and, you never know, travel with them. I would love to raise awareness about this topic because it’s really close to my heart and I would love to travel to less lucky countries to show them how Deaf people can achieve anything.
I will start my interpret course with a different point of view, and I will know already what to do once I’ll complete it!
Do you have any advice for those Hearing people who would like to meet Deaf community abroad?
I was visiting Myanmar, many people were looking at me and my boyfriend in a not friendly way. They were, of course, curious about us but not willing (or ready) to take the next step and get to know us.
However, as soon as we stepped in the Deaf School, everybody was smiling at us, everybody was saying “Hi!”, even if we never met each other. Students were curious about us, and wanted to know more! We Hearing people are not used to this. We are way more shy and sometimes we are so afraid of something new or different, that we refuse to open ourselves. We will never improve if we keep going this way.
That’s why I can say that if you’re not sure whether meeting some Deaf people, I think you should simply go! You won’t regret it. They will surely welcome you in their community and they will do anything to make you feel home. Just go to a Deaf café or restaurant! There are many of them in every city, you only need to look for it. There, you will automatically learn how to order your meal, or how to spell your name.
Schools for Deaf are a good starting point as well, as some teachers might be Hearing and therefore communication can get easier. Schools are safe environment for students, and I’m sure they will be more than happy to introduce you to the Deaf community! I’m pretty sure anyone will be more interested about the Deaf community, as soon as they get to know it better!
Thank you, Sonia, for sharing your experience as a Hearing traveler and appreciating our Deaf culture. I’m quite impressed with your will to continue to learn different sign languages!
If you are Hearing and would like to explore Deaf communities, like what Sonia said, don’t be afraid to try it out and step out your comfort zone. I hope that Sonia’s story will reach many Hearing readers, especially those who are interested in our Deaf culture. Sonia’s story also can apply to Deaf, Hard of Hearing, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, and Late-Deafened (DHHDBDDLD) communities who may know little to no sign language and haven’t been raised in Deaf culture. It’s really imperative to have our community not only heard but seen.
There will be more featured stories for Through Their Eyes series.
Have you ever visited Deaf businesses or met one?
what is it like for you? What your thought on this?