What I learned about the Deaf community in China

deaf people talking
ID: A Deaf male and a Deaf female are talking to each other in sign language

The Deaf community in China is something that I’ve long been curious about ever since I befriended a Deaf Chinese female who was visiting the USA with her baby in 2010. Although she wasn’t fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), we still managed to have a conversation through ASL and gestures. “Life in China is too hard,” she said. She shared the struggle of having effective communication with her family and finding a job despite her speaking skills. “My husband is also Deaf. And my parents aren’t happy that their grandchild is Deaf too. So, I am here in America to get Cochlear’s Implants for my son.” Getting Cochlear’s Implants isn’t a cure or the solution, I told her. She nodded in agreement. I wasn’t too surprised about the hardships that she was facing, because it is something that many of us can relate. After she left, I’ve never heard from her again and wondered from time to time about her.  Coincidentally, 2010 was the time when I added China to my “dream countries” list after scrolling through Google images. I once hoped that I’d be able to have a chance to visit China but I also never imagined that I’d also had the opportunity to meet the Deaf community in China. They have taught me tremendously that I often did not think beyond being a Deaf American. So, here are a couple of things I’ve learned: 

Freedom of speech is limited

I once nodded in agreement with different Deaf people about having a protest or using digital platforms were both “easy and accessible” (like Deaf President Now!) when addressing our Deaf rights and issues can be seen, make awareness and hopefully resolved. I later learned that I was completely wrong. I failed to think beyond the life of Deaf people in the USA or any democratic countries. The government system in China has its own impacts on the Deaf communities in China. I have the privilege to have the First Amendment (which is Freedom of Speech/Expression) included in the U.S. Constitution whereas people of China has very limited freedom of speech/expression. So, how does this affect Deaf people there? 

Deaf people of China cannot publicly protest or make criticisms publicly. There would be serious consequences for those who do. The jail, they told me. “If I need to make complaints or requests, there are applications to do so. This takes forever because it passes to each person with a higher position. Until it finally reaches to the person who handles the case, that person may ignore it, put it off or rejected it.” Some Deaf people don’t want to make complaints since their reputation could be put at risk or may experience consequences. “You, American Deaf people, are lucky. You can protest and ask for changes. You all have come together easily but we can’t…” I have the privilege to even have the rights of having the freedom of speech. 

ID: A Deaf Asian female in a light blue uniform is working on a ceramic

The Child policies

Before the one-child policy ended in 2015, several Chinese parents only were allowed to birth one child. However, if their first and only child is Deaf, the government will give an exception for them (there can be other reasons too). This means that the parents are allowed to have a second child which would give them a chance to have a healthy (and “normal”) child. I didn’t think much about how this one-child policy would have an impact upon the Deaf communities in China, but I’m not so surprised about it either. Not only that parents want a healthy child (which is absolutely normal to want that) but there are also several parents worldwide think it’s shameful or embarrassing to have a Deaf child. 

After the one-child policy revoked, a two-child policy was implemented. The situation still remains the same for the Deaf community there. Shall if the parents have two children with disabilities (or even two females in some situations in China), they are likely to have an exception to have a third one. 

Facebook, YouTube, etc. are banned

Facebook has been becoming an important platform for Deaf communities across the world. There are several Deaf vloggers (even popular ones) and visual news in a local sign language. Facebook is like a digital spacial center for Deaf communities worldwide where they can have access to networking with one another, befriending one another and even learning international news about other Deaf people. YouTube is also an alternative platform but not as prominent platform for the Deaf communities worldwide. 

Few of the Deaf Chinese people I’ve met are aware of how popular Facebook is for Deaf communities worldwide. Some expressed disappointment when China decided to ban Facebook because they lost access to a prominent platform that is shared by many. “I can try to use VPN sometimes,” one of the Deaf Chinese people told me, “but the problem is that it can be very slow.” Those who have access to Facebook or YouTube via VPN (or while being in another country), some would screen-record sign language videos or screenshot articles and share it on popular Chinese digital platforms like Weibo, WeChat and YouKu. 

ID: red 3D images of different signs for Chinese alphabets

Strict protocols to visit Deaf Schools

Hearing travelers don’t visit local schools while traveling unless they are volunteering or teaching there. But you probably be surprised if you learned that visiting Deaf schools isn’t uncommon by Deaf travelers – like my experience with visiting a Deaf university in China. It may seem weird to you because it is as if we are treating Deaf schools like they are an attraction. It’s usually the norm that even some local Deaf schools are used to having international Deaf visitors as well. While traveling, I often just show up at local Deaf schools and see if I could enter. More often than not, I was welcomed and entered without a problem. Sometimes I’d try to ask them before visiting Deaf schools. 

Visiting Deaf school in China was a different experience though. I had never been questioned “why?” by the staff who work at the Deaf school – whether they’re Hearing or not. I was thrown off by her skeptical question. “Um, it’s because I’m Deaf and I’d like to visit…?” Funnily enough, it is her skeptical “why?” expression that I started to wonder if I seemed like a pervert. I questioned whether my action of visiting local Deaf schools was indeed inappropriate – wait, no, creepy. I mean, why would I visit underage children

It wasn’t just children though! It’s Deaf teachers too. But maybe in their eyes, it seems weird but in my own Deaf eyes, it’s not…? I tried again to clarify my reasons for visiting. Fortunately, the Hearing woman that I was talking to then said that I could visit but preferred to be accompanied by an available staff there on another day. Of course, I didn’t object and disrespect her condition. Just because it’s different here (comparing to most of my experiences in other countries), it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Nevertheless, the day they allowed me to come became the day I had to leave Beijing soon. I wasn’t able to visit (with my creepy-ass self) but I certainly do hope to try again if I visit in the future. 

ID: A Deaf Chinese male is trimming the tree in woodworking class

Deaf associations are only managed by the government

This is also the case with the Deaf association that I tried to visit in Beijing. The association is located inside a huge building that has a gate and a security guard. Then “why” happened. Instead of allowing me inside with conditions, I was told that I cannot visit for whatever reasons. When I shared my experience with one of the local Deaf people there, his eyes widen with surprise. He said that it’s not something that anybody can walk in. He and others told me that the Deaf association is not like the ones in the USA or other countries, where the associations are usually member-driven advocacy non-profit organizations who get financially supported by corporations, foundations, organizations or individual donors.

“All of our Deaf associations here are fully managed by the government. It’s them who fund our Deaf associations. If we want to have an association, we have to be under them. When the government gives us the fund for the association, a Deaf person cannot be the president/chairperson. It has to be a Hearing person….Having an equal partnership between the government and Deaf associations is something I believe it is how it should be…I really want that.” The majority of members at the associations are Hearing people who know little to no Chinese Sign Language, or so I’ve been told. 

ID: local Chinese are walking down the white stairs

Deaf Chinese people weren't legally allowed
to drive until the year of 2010

“wait, what?” I asked one of my Deaf Chinese friends. “Did you say 2010? 2 0 1 0 ?” I sputtered in sign language. “yes, that’s right. 20 TEN,” she said. I couldn’t believe my (ears) eyes. I am all for public transportation and eco-friendly transportation but having a basic right taken away? (study shows that Deaf people drive significantly better than Hearing people – Bavelier, Dye, & Hauser, 2006; Chen, Zhang, & Zhou, 2006).

I knew that not every country allows Deaf people to drive yet (I think Laos is currently one of them) but I assumed China would have done this more than 10 years ago at least. “Before we were allowed to drive, we only could use the buses, ride the bikes or take a taxi. It wasn’t fair, because when my parents needed to go to the hospital, I could only use a taxi to take them there. Now I can happily drive them around.” According to her, Beijing was the first to pass the laws and it later implemented in other provinces. “We, Deaf people, can drive!” she said.

ID: a Deaf heterosexual couple is smiling at the camera.

Palm writing or air writing their Chinese characters

In American Sign Language (ASL), we can sign all 26 alphabets. If there is no sign for a particular word, we’d spell it out. In the Chinese language, there are no alphabets. Each Chinese character (as there are over 3,000 of them) is already a word, so it already has a meaning. So, their national language has a unique impact on Chinese Sign Language (CSL). In Chinese Sign Language, they do have the sign for the “alphabets” – like the pinyin (the romanization of the Chinese characters based on their pronunciation) as you can see in the photo above. However, if the Deaf Chinese sign language user isn’t signing the pinyin, they will instead handwrite (or trace) the character on their palm, on the table or write it in the air. 

“Growing up, we learn to read and understand air-writing Chinese character…so when we don’t understand what a Hearing person is saying, we ask them to air-write it so we can see it. Tracing Chinese characters isn’t only used by Deaf Chinese people but by Hearing Chinese people too!”  I’ve seen them tracing out the Chinese characters on the palm or table – they were pretty fast! 

Traditional Chinese medicine (or eastern medicine) are also used to try cure deafness

Traditional Chinese medicine (or Eastern medicine) is still widely popular: acupuncture, cupping, herbal medicine, etc. There is also some traditional Chinese medicine that is being used on Deaf people where many believe it could make them hear again, so cochlear’s Implants isn’t the only option they had (cochlear’s implants have been known to cure Deaf people worldwide which is completely false). 

A husband of the woman that I was talking with told me his stories as a child when his parent was trying to cure his deafness. “I remembered when I was little, my parents couldn’t afford to get cochlear’s implants, so that was not an option. They tried acupuncture behind my ears that were believed to cure me. Did it make me hear again? No. They tried a person who can do the chanting as he swung the sword in unison. Could I hear again? No. They made me drink a specific traditional herbal tea that claimed to cure deafness. Did it make me hear again? Absolutely not,” he smirked gleefully. I loved his humor. (Excuse for my lack of knowledge on the appropriate wording for different medical approaches. I attempted to ask them but there is a language barrier. I tried to research but can’t find all of them).

ID: Stacey is posing with her right arm out and smiles at the camera. A bakery is shown behind her, "Silent Cake" with its logo and in Chinese characters

A trip to China was an eye-opening experience for me. Because of them, I recognized the privileges I have as a Deaf American, like having freedom of speech where I can join the protests without getting arrested just for speaking up. While I was in China, I also tried to reach out that Deaf Chinese woman that I befriended with years ago but to no avail. Despite sharing some similar oppressive experiences within the Deaf communities around the world, we have our differences as well. Several external factors have its impacts or influence upon the local Deaf communities: government system, language, awareness about Deaf people (or even Disabled people in general), etc. 

Although there some challenges for different Deaf communities around the world, there are also unique beauties within diverse Deaf communities, like the air-writing or palm writing gestures. Thank you, my Deaf Chinese friends, for not only welcoming me but explaining about the Deaf community in China!

You can also watch the video here!

Closed captions and transcription are both available.

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  1. Just found your blog on wordpress. Amazing. Shouldn’t there be a “Follow” button somewhere for other wordpress users?

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