Travel Q+A: Myths and Realities From a Deaf Perspective

One globetrotter sets straight misconceptions about traveling while deaf.

by Frida Oskarsdottir

In our country, hearing individuals likely do not encounter deafness or sign language in their everyday life. About 2-3 out of every 1000 people in the US go deaf before the age of 18, unrelated to common hearing loss due to aging. This causes a gap in understanding between the hearing and hearing-impaired communities, which can be exacerbated by lack of representation in media, politics, and culture.

Given our travel theme, I reached out to Sigríður Vala Jóhannsdóttir to hear more about her experiences with extensive travel as a member of the deaf community. Sigríður is a Cultural and Communication Specialist at the Icelandic Association of the Deaf and a graduate of Gallaudet University in Washington DC. She lives in Reykjavik, Iceland.

What are your top three travel destinations?

– Otranto, Italy

– Canaima Park, Venezuela

– Munich, Germany

What are common misconceptions about traveling as a deaf person?

That a deaf person traveling is very lonely — in fact in every destination, there is a deaf community waiting for a deaf tourist to be immediately accepted into. I basically have a home everywhere I go.

Another misconception is that the barriers would be immense, but a deaf person is a visual being, so traveling is, in my opinion, more natural for us than most hearing people who depend on their hearing and spoken language to get through their days. I am quicker to find clues that help me travel with less difficulties. When communicating with a foreigner who speaks no English, gesturing comes to me as natural and even fun. I can say that it is not so for most of my hearing friends and family.

switzerland on motorcycle

What are some of the advantages/disadvantages to traveling while communicating through sign language?

Advantages:

Conversations – they continue as normal whilst being across a crowd, being underwater, through windows, or across train platforms.

Better seats – ‘Hello ma’am, welcome to our airline, I see that you are disabled, here’s a better seat and you get the chance to board first.’

A means of getting out of harassment – if someone is annoying me trying to sell me something or trying to get my attention, I either ignore them on purpose or simply start signing. They get the message and walk away thinking I can’t understand them. Also, most people feel guilty about taking advantage of a deaf person so I am less likely to be targeted.

Disadvantages:

When dealing with a signing tourist, people seem to tend to forget their manners. All of sudden they are free to communicate with us in gloriously insulting ways. For example, once on airplane after handing me over a cup of coffee, the stewardess grabbed her boob and squeezed it in anticipation that I would understand it as her sign for “milk”. I was mortified for her!

Independence thieves – people seeing me using sign language brings out the protective instincts in them. They want to look after me and do things for me because I just ‘quite can’t do stuff’. Ignorance again, I guess.

Do you prefer to travel alone or with a group?

I do not have a preference. It depends on the destination and the goal of the travel. On solo travels, I simply enjoy my own company, am with my own thoughts without anyone intruding, and have time to reflect. When I am traveling with other people, there is always someone else around to share in my good times. And there’s always someone to take my pictures!

sydney

What resources are important to you? What travel tips and tricks do you have?

Networking is important.  The deaf world is not a big one so we have an advantage of quickly connecting to people from far away. I can easily ask my old classmate if he knows someone from Israel. Even if he does not, he will connect me to someone who does. At the end of the day, I am on FaceTime with someone deaf in Israel who is asking me if I want a tour of Tel Aviv.

It is essential to always ask for a receipt and count my change.  In poorer or grumpier countries, they are always looking for ways to suck money out of tourists.

A practical tip is to always take along a notepad and pen. It is not always for booking a hotel room with the receptionist– I also use it to converse with the stranger next to me on train or at hostels.  The best thing about this is that I get to keep all of our conversation. Memories of my travels come flooding back when I read them years later.

What do you wish people knew (while travelling or in general) about the deaf community?

There is a question I know hearing people would not dare to ask because they feel that it would be offensive, which is understandable– “if you have a chance to become hearing, would you?”. My answer is NO, I would not change a thing. I am happy and proud to be deaf. I have accepted that it is a part of me. I would not be where I am today and doing all the things I am doing. I would not have traveled or met so many people along my journey if not for my deafness. Although I am speaking for myself, this applies to many deaf people as well. So next time you meet them, have this frame in your mind that they are happy as they are.

 

 

“Log Kya Kahengay”: Calling Off a Wedding

To marry or not to marry (the wrong person), that is the question.

By Saira Khan

About five years ago, when I was contemplating calling off my wedding a mere three months before the ceremony, one of my biggest concerns was about what my parents would endure as a result of my decision. To be clear, I wasn’t worried about what my parents would say (they’ve always encouraged and supported me), I was worried about what people would say to them.

If you’ve watched Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix special, “Homecoming King,” then you’ll know the significance of the phrase “log kya kahengay” (what will people say?)–words that have struck fear into many a brown kid’s heart, and indeed was what was on my mind during that pivotal moment of my life.

“I want to wear this dress.”

“Log kya kahengay.”

“I want to go to college.”

“Log kya kahengay.”

“I’ve fallen in love and want to marry a person outside of my race.”

“Log kya kahengay.”

My experience with shame doesn’t come close to what some women have to endure. But, five years ago, when I found myself lending legitimacy to “log kya kahengay,” I was acting on an entire lifetime of being told that I carried the weight of my family’s honor on my shoulders.

I have two sisters. If you’re South Asian, you already know this is an issue. In our culture, boys are considered blessings and girls are thought of as burdens. In low-income families, the needs of boys are prioritized over that of girls, who have to sacrifice meals, their education, and occasionally, their lives, for the male children of the family. Families that don’t have any male heirs are often pitied. I’ve lost count of the number of times I heard women ask my mother how many children she has, only to go on and respond, “Aw, no boys? I guess that was God’s will.”

My parents were also criticized for the way they chose to raise their three daughters. We were educated and sent “abroad” (to the U.S.) to complete our education. For many, the idea of sending your daughters to another country for anything, let alone studying, was enough reason to bring shame and dishonor upon the family. And people made sure they told my father this.

So, when it came down to me calling off my nearly year-long engagement (I was also marrying outside of my race, to a white man, which could be considered scandalous among some people), I thought about all of the above. I thought my actions would reinforce all the sexist nonsense that had been directed at my parents. I knew what kind of comments were awaiting them:

“See! They raised their daughter to be free and now she can’t even get married.

“This is what happens when you give girls too much freedom.”

In truth, what I felt is hardly unique. South Asian women are expected to carry the burden of their family’s honor–and with it, are held responsible for bringing dishonor upon them. It’s a concept that is so pervasive in our culture that countless Bollywood plotlines have been written around it: the story of a woman killing herself after being raped or to prevent herself from being raped (the implication being that death is always better here.) In a not-fictional-all setting, this translates to honor killings, or the murder of a female by her family members, for bringing shame upon the family (reasons have ranged from dancing in the rain, falling in love, and leaving an abusive marriage). I should note that it could be argued that intimate partner violence in the United States echoes similar behavior, and so honor killings are not exclusive to the South Asian community. Even our colloquial phrase for committing rape centers around honor: “Izzat loot lo,” which literally translates to “steal her respect.”

It’s because of these deep-rooted misogynist mores that I almost married a man who was absolutely, 100%, the wrong person for me–we were different people, with different goals and ambitions–and yet, as so many people do, I stayed in the relationship for reasons I still don’t even understand. Luckily, for both of us, I had a candid conversation with my parents about calling off my wedding and they were, as always, supportive. They were also kind enough to spare me the details of what people said about it.

By taking the burden of what my decisions–right or wrong–meant upon themselves, my parents freed me from an expectation that had weighed me down for years and years: that respectable women get married and have children. Since breaking off my engagement, I’ve discovered many things about myself, including that I most likely don’t want to be married and have children; even monogamy isn’t important to me. And you know what? I’m not ashamed of any of it.

Knowing Two Languages Is a Forked Road

I am the best English speaker in my family.

By Monica Torres

Chicana feminist theorist Gloria Anzaldúa said that for Latinos who have no other recourse but to create a new language —one neither español ni inglés— our bodies shapeshift, we grow a “forked tongue.”

I hear that snake’s rattle when men in suits talk to me as if my mother wasn’t there, telling me that they cannot understand her. A snake’s forked tongue gifts you with two different perspectives to create a more complete, three-dimensional whole. I see and hear things clearly through mine. My mother’s English is a lilting cadence of song, the easiest language I know, full of clear colors and unexpected metaphors. My own is Standardized and boring, a Grade-A product of the American education system.

All my years of fancy book learning have made me the best English speaker in my family, but I would happily forfeit my fluency in ski lodge capitalism and human boatshoes and forget the meaning of structured analyses if I could sound more like my mother.

She is the only person in my world who can switch between Spanish and English at a rapid clip of “did you put on desodorante” and “porque no me has llamado.” I can understand her judgment at any speed. With everyone else, Spanish sounds like a mouth full of cotton, at least to me. I’m muy Americana. I garble tenses, fuck up the accents, and reach for words that do not come. I love hearing my name in Spanish, but I’m afraid that if I use it and you ask harder questions, I won’t be able to follow through. I sign my name Monica, not Mónica.

Here’s a grammar lesson that’s taken me too long to learn: knowing the right words doesn’t mean shit if you don’t know how to say them. I have failed too many people with my agreeable silence. The unspoken truth is that we judge people narrowly by their accents and dress and skin just as much as what comes out of their mouths. That’s why nothing makes me swipe left faster than a man who mentions good grammar as a criteria. We wouldn’t be able to speak the same language. How could I tell him that when my mother tells me what “Rachel Maddox” said on TV today, it makes me homesick.

The last time I visited my mom in Florida, she waited until my last days to tell me about a request to help her. Over the last few weeks, she had spent hours translating and typing up letters in English to a company that had mismanaged her request, only for these painstakingly-worded complaints to go unanswered. Would I please figure out a way to get them to answer her? The letters were not in perfect Standardized English but they were full of clear actionable demands. Reading through them, I felt a hissing anger rise within me and tighten my throat. This was not the first time this has happened to her.

My mother read the look on my face for helplessness. It was that and more, a two-forked thing. All it took me was one stern phone call to resolve the issue that had been bothering her for weeks.

My father wanted to name me after my mother, but recognizing her new chosen world of Tropicana, my mother gifted me a name that would sound easier in English and Spanish. Muy Americana.

Then and now, this is how she reasoned her decision to name me, her request for my help: I know they will listen to her more than me. When she tells me this, it’s in a voice full of pride and more.

An Interview with the Woman Whose Protest Sign Led to the Resignation of a State Senator

Becky Haines shares her side to the story of how a retweeted photograph led to the resignation of Nebraska State Senator Bill Kintner.

 By Frida Oskarsdottir

Becky Haines headed home from the Women’s March on Washington on January 21st with a renewed sense of hope. Hours later, a photograph of her and her sisters carrying signs that read “Not this Pussy” and “Not Mine Either” was tweeted by conservative talk show host Larry Elder, with the caption “Ladies, I think you’re safe.” The tweet gained thousands of likes and was retweeted by Nebraska State Senator Bill Kintner. Many were incensed by Kintner’s endorsement of these remarks, and, amid the controversy, he resigned. Viral news of this nature often ignores the real people involved. We spoke to Becky to hear her side of the story.

How did you decide to attend the Women’s March?

My sister and I, I don’t know who said first, but we were like “Hey, we want to do this.” We invited our third sister to join us and we went together. We haven’t done anything together as sisters in a very long time, it was special in that context alone.

Had you ever marched before?

This was the first time I have ever taken a stand politically. I have never protested or marched or ever really cared about politics until now.

How did you decide on the signs?

My sister Nancy’s husband is an artist and he made us these beautiful hand-painted signs, one said ‘Treat Everyone with Respect. Period.’ and one said ‘United We Stand.’ And we flipped the signs over (laughing) and made our own signs because he refused to paint that for us.

So we actually had very beautiful politically correct signs on one side which we carried maybe 10% of the day and on the other side were more publicized signs that you’ve seen all over the place. And we are all very, we’re sort of reserved people and so that was big for us to carry these signs.

What was the reaction at the march? Did you see similar signs?

There were similar signs. Easily a hundred people asked if they could take our picture. We saw this wall behind one of the museums and said “Let’s get up on that wall.” So we’re above the crowd and not getting jostled but still can see everything that’s going on and be a part of everything. So we’re standing above everybody and people would stop and ask if they could stop and take our picture and yelled that they loved our signs.

How did you feel after the march?

I felt hopeful. I woke up Friday morning feeling depressed and afraid. Saturday after marching with my sisters I found my hope again. There are so many of us that are going to fight for each other. It was arm to arm people, no one shoved, no one said an unkind word. It was beautiful.

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Bill Kintner retweeted Larry Elder’s tweet after the Women’s March. Haines is pictured here, center, with her two sisters.

How did you find out about how your picture was circulating?

Originally a friend here (in PA) had posted it on my Facebook page but it was from a local conservative talk radio DJ and I could not figure out where he got the photo. At that point I had no idea that it had gone viral. And then my niece saw it on a blog and texted it to me in a panic because she didn’t know how to tell her mother. I said we had to tell them before it gets in the mainstream media and so we told both my sisters. I’m perfectly comfortable with it. It brought someone down that shouldn’t be in office. And even though it’s very indirect that I had any contribution to that I feel very proud that my photo helped to take him down. It made it worth the hateful comments.

The timeline was so immediate, he (Kintner) retweeted the photo, there was backlash, and a few days later he resigned. Were you following closely or just hoping the attention would go away?

I was following very closely. When it all came to light, my son posted on Facebook Mr. Kintner’s contact information and asked his friends to call and fax and write to ask for his resignation. He resigned that morning and my phone was blowing up.

I haven’t seen the video of his press conference but I read his response, he didn’t really take responsibility for his actions or ever apologize for what he did.

When you started hearing of the photos circulating were you surprised by the magnitude of it and the people who reached out to you?

Initially I was hearing only from people that I knew, and then I wrote a post to Pantsuit Nation that was published, and that was viewed over 33,000 times and over 2500 hundred comments, 99.9% were supportive and the people who expressed a negative comment were immediately challenged by someone else.

What would you say is the takeaway from this?

I feel like I made a difference. I feel like all of us becoming active, those of us who don’t stand with what the current administration is doing, we can make a difference. One little step at a time, but it gave me hope that we can turn the tide.

Are you going to go to any more protests in the near future?

I am! It’s funny I was just working on my sign, I’m going on Sunday in Harrisburg where I live at the Capitol, against the ban on immigration.

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Becky Haines

What does your sign say?

It’s a picture of the Statue of Liberty with the words at the base, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses who yearn to breathe free.”

We have to remain united, especially women, we have to take care of and support each other. I know that the news this week was that Trump is not going to take away LGBTQ rights. I have a gay son and that’s extremely important to me and my theory is that that’ll change down the road.

So this is personal for you in many ways?

Absolutely. I was in an abusive marriage; the verbal abuse of women is a huge point for me. I’ve had mental health issues which would preclude me, god forbid, from getting insurance if I ever switched employers. They are too numerous to mention the reasons why I’m willing to march out in the snow on Sunday.

Thank you, Becky.

Thank you and keep marching!

 

Single With a Side of “Torshideh”

For Iranian women, the pressure of marriage comes with a sour twist.

By Sara Afzal

 

All the children sit around the table as their grandmother prepares the traditional Iranian feast. The pickled sour vegetable garnish known as torshi is placed alongside the steaming saffron rice with green beans and beef. The youngest girl finishes everything on her plate except the green mush. “Sara, eat your torshi!” the grandmother commands.

As a child, I never really liked torshi. It looked like a dark green compote with the occasional carrot and tasted too sour and vinegary. As a twenty something woman, torshi became less about questionable veggie spread, and more about the word torshideh–literally meaning soured, but used to describe an unmarried woman whose clock is ticking into her 30s. Think of it as the Iranian term for “spinster.”

The term torshideh haunted most Iranian women who suffered through tremendous marriage pressure from their families. My parents pushed me less in that department, a positive side effect from their divorce. Still, I was not immune to the term. My older male cousins threw the jabs as soon as I was in my early 20s. “Sara, you don’t want to become torshideh now. Learn how to cook Iranian food so you can be a good wife. Oh, and go pour us some tea.”

Think of it as the Iranian term for “spinster.”

The pressure to get married is overt for all young Iranian men and women, but the taboo is especially faced by unmarried women, as the word torshideh demonstrates. Yet, while women are encouraged to marry young, divorce is still frowned upon. In Iran, women are not legally permitted to attain a divorce as Sharia law gives men the sole right. In the U.S., about 40 to 50 percent of marriages ended in divorce, and in Iran, about 20 percent of marriages result in divorce. Of course these stats don’t imply that marriages in Iran work better than in the US, it just means it’s harder for women to get out of them.

Luckily, my parents were far from traditional. They left Iran during the tumultuous political years that would soon tip into the chaos of the 1978-1979 Islamic Revolution, and they were determined to build a new life in America. My mom, Nahid, was raised by Muslim parents who disapproved of her living with my dad, Ali, without being married. So the two students studying art and film at UT Austin decided to tie the knot spontaneously with no planned wedding ceremony. They got hitched wearing faded Wrangler jeans at the courthouse in Austin, Texas. On their wedding day, instead of a traditional ring, Ali gave Nahid a set of multicolored plastic bands that was later passed down to me. The retro pink, red, blue, and white rings once all worn on my mother’s ring finger sit inside of a small jewelry box I still have today. The rings may have lasted, but the marriage didn’t.

In Iran, about 60 percent of its 80 million people are younger than the age of 30.

My parents’ unorthodox marriage and eventual divorce has given me a complicated relationship with the Iranian way of looking at marriage. Like most children of a failed union, I can’t think about marriage without thinking about divorce. The truth is I’d rather be labeled torshideh like expired milk than get married for the wrong reasons, and I think this is a modern concept that is not accepted by an older generation of Iranians. Arranged marriages are still common in Iran, but at the same time, there has been a strong shift towards dating around and marrying at an older age, much like in the U.S. These contradictions between the modern and traditional are very apparent in Iran, a country where about 60 percent of its 80 million people are younger than the age of 30. The emergence of this youth population has been linked to the loss of young men fighting during the eight year war with Iraq in the 1980s, and also the government’s encouragement of larger families during the beginning of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Living in the U.S. makes it easier to avoid the anxiety of being called torshideh. Surrounded by powerful women who look at marriage as an option and not a compulsion has empowered me to feel confident in my own hesitation. It’s more of a “if it happens, it happens” with no impulse to dream up a wedding day fantasy. I’m most thankful that my parents have not adhered to the norm and pressured me to marry “a nice Iranian boy,” but that doesn’t mean the rest of my family is as lax. The last time I went to Iran my grandmother, who loves to arrange marriages, said, “If you come back again, I will find you a husband.” I haven’t been back since.