I have been fortunate enough to have experienced many different cultures and peoples while living in Hanau, Germany. My ex-husband was in the military and I had just turned 18 years old, had never been much out of North Carolina much less out of the country when we were stationed there! It was a wonderful experience that I will relay more of in later posts, but for now I just needed to set the scene for one of the most profound experiences that I had ever had in my life. One that I am still very blessed to have had and that changed me forever.
In Hanau, we lived in government apartments. It wasn’t your typical base housing because it was still in the German city. I met many different people on a daily basis – different states, different countries, different reasons for being in Germany with the military. What was so funny is that the southerners there seemed few and far between so you can imagine that my southern accent was pointed out quite frequently by Americans, Germans, and anyone else I met. At times it predetermined how we viewed one another. Northerners have certain ideas about southerners and of course we have ideas about northerners. So most conversations were begun with talking about those differences – even if it was a German and myself or a Latino and myself. It was by no means a bad thing – I love learning about what others see about me and the differences others may have. But there was one group that allowed me into their world – a world so different that it felt like I had broken new ground – at least for myself. They normally would have never allowed someone like me to come into their home with people like them.
I remember being a very little girl, sitting in my mom and dad’s car in a parking lot when a very tall, thin man came up to the window. He didn’t speak a word but my parents didn’t seemed alarmed although I was a bit perplexed. He was dressed in a nice black suit with a crisp, black hat and handed them a small booklet through the car window. My dad took out his wallet and gave him what I thought was $1. The stranger nodded his head and put is hand to his mouth and then lowered it. Again..my parents understood – I was still puzzled. My mom then showed me the book he gave to us. It was for American Sign Language and he was raising money for other deaf people like himself. I looked through the pages and started learning the ABC’s – and was quite proud of myself. My mother was intrigued with sign language but had never gotten to learn it. So we learned what we could together. Flash forward 13 years…
There was a knock at the door one day while cleaning my apartment and caring for my 2 year old little girl. As I opened the door I saw a small, Asian woman standing there holding a piece of paper and several rolled up canvases. She didn’t speak – at first I thought because she didn’t know much English. She smiled and gave me the paper. As I read I became quite excited…she was deaf and was selling her paintings to help raise money for her family and other deaf people. I invited her in and she rolled out the canvases on my floor. What I saw was absolutely one of the most beautiful paintings I had ever seen and here is why…
If you don’t have the ability to hear a voice, a stream, a cricket or anything else – especially from birth – you must realize that the person doesn’t concentrate on what they can’t hear. They concentrate on what they see and feel. We as hearing people imaging being deaf and it just seems so horrible, so isolating to us because we use our hearing along with all of our other senses. But – if a person has never had that sense – he may not know what he is missing. He will use everything else he has more, without even thinking about it. That being said – the way she saw the world and how she recorded it was breathtaking. Reds, greens,blues and textures that brought to life everything that she painted. They seemed alive. I bought the first painting I saw. I wrote on a piece of paper to please come back the next day so I could look at more. She smiled and bowed slightly and I remembered the sign for “thank you” which made her smile just a little brighter.
The next day I was ready – I found a sign language book that I had for quite awhile but hadn’t really taken out. I heard the knock at the door and rushed to open it with book in hand. I waved hello, showed her the book and she became so excited! I was very confused at the moment as to why she of all people would be excited about an elementary level sign language book, but soon realized it had nothing to do with the book at all – It was because I wanted to communicate with her and wanted to understand her world. She didn’t even pull out the canvases but sat down in the floor with me for over an hour “talking” to me. She would sign, I would flip through the pages, then I would sign back (as best I could!) and so on until I learned that she was there with several of her other family members who were also deaf. She was married to an American Soldier and lived in another set of apartments close by. If I didn’t understand exactly what she was signing, she would take the book and show me – it was so very intimate. I felt like a little girl making a new best friend – and one that was not only Korean as I found out, but deaf. When she left that day she told me she wanted me to come to her apartment to meet her family (this was after my father bought two of her paintings and I bought another!).
The next day she came back to my apartment and I was ready to go – book in hand. Her smile was so big and bright while walked to her apartment. I stepped in and realized that I was the only hearing person in the room surrounded by four other women and men just as excited that I was there. All smiles, so warm and welcoming. Her sister had a huge book that she brought to me of advanced sign language as she took the little book I had and sat it down on the table next to me. Then the frenzy started. Imagine teenage girls who get together in a room that haven’t gotten to talk to one another for a very long time. They would drown out any other sounds with their quick chatter and laughter. This was the same – but silent.
They were all signing – all wanting to talk to me, so excited that I wanted to learn – about sign language, about them and their lives and their talent. They talked with a blurry of signs…so fast that I had to quickly learn how to say “slow down”! I was there for over 3 hours flipping through pages just as fast as I could – laughing and talking with them. Toward the end of the time there her husband came back home along with her son who could both hear. They began translating everything for me but I would still search the book because I wanted to know their language. I learned more sign language in a few hours than I had ever learned on my own. You see, most people would not have known how to try and communicate effectively – as not to offend them. I’m the type of person that I don’t mind looking like an idiot if I want to know or understand something or someone. I just wanted to meet them…connect with them. They were kind enough to allow me into their life – one that most hearing people were never allowed into simply because the two worlds seemed so separate. I was the different one there…the odd ball in a sense but they accepted me gladly. A true honor.
I had the painting for years – rolled up – until my Chris, my most wonderful husband had it stretched and framed for me and hung it over our bed. When I saw it hanging there, it took my breath. I remembered how honored and humbled I felt that day and could see all over again how beautifully they saw the world and how they shared that beauty with me. Through their eyes the world was bright and bold and through their eyes I learned true acceptance and to celebrate our differences.
If you would like to learn a little sign language yourself check out Lifeprint that has an on-line American Sign Language Dictionary!