Breaking Free of a Life Without Language

Breaking Free of a Life Without Language

Sam Hodgson

Many of the students in Har Sin's class are immigrants from around the world, all of whom are learning to communicate.

 

Part II of II (Read Part I)

They’re not like me, he gestured as they approached the coffee shop.

Har Sin hadn’t wanted to come here.

It was a cold Friday last December. Some two dozen people were on the warmly lit patio at the Coffee Bean in Mission Valley, speaking in sign language, their conversations filling the air with a silent cacophony.

Rupert Dubler hoped Har Sin could soon understand it all.

Har Sin was nervous, uncomfortable. He was afraid his simple, homemade hand gestures wouldn’t fit in.

But once on the patio, he sat on the edge of his chair and leaned in, absorbing the visual feast in front of him, amazement in his eyes as he took stock of what his future might hold.

A friend of Dubler’s, a pale young woman named Gabrielle, spotted them and walked over.

She fingerspelled an introduction. My name is G-a-b-r-i-e-l-l-e.

Har Sin stood with his hands in his pockets. He didn’t know how to respond. He never knew language. The 24-year-old Burmese refugee had lived a life without it, not ever knowing there was a way for people like him, without hearing, to formally communicate. He’d learned of sign language just that month. But Dubler, a volunteer introducing Har Sin to the basics, had already taught him to spell his name, and he forced him to introduce himself.

H-a-r-S-i-n. He fumbled over the letters.

Do you want to know anything about Gabrielle? Dubler asked.

No.

♦♦♦

Har Sin pulled a collared shirt over his head and struggled to get his arms through the sleeves. He was running late. He grabbed a knockoff Dolce & Gabbana jacket and his too-small red checkered backpack.

In the living room of the dim apartment where he lives with his sister and her family of seven, he waved to get his sister’s attention in the kitchen. They locked eyes. He nudged his head toward the door.

I’m leaving. She nodded.

Har Sin hurried out. His shirt was neatly pressed, his donated shoes spotless, his hair close-cropped, his backpack still stiff from newness. He walked with confidence.

It was early May, and Har Sin was in his first month of literacy class. Just a month earlier, at the age of 24, he went to the first class of his life to start learning skills most people know by the age of 5.

Har Sin had waited four months to get a seat in the class designed for students who have never learned to communicate well enough to get an entry-level job or to advance in the ones they already have.

Most of the students in Har Sin’s class were immigrants. Some never learned language because their poor families could not afford special school for the deaf. Or because their disability subjected them to discrimination back home. Or because they lived in refugee camps where they eked out existences.

For Har Sin, it was all of those.

For his whole life, Har Sin’s language comprised simple hand gestures that only his family understood. His life was intellectually devoid. He never used words to express the complex emotions or desires so evident in his eager brown eyes.

In San Diego, that began to change in a small classroom in Hillcrest.

♦♦♦

Letters of the alphabet lined the front wall, accompanied by their sign language equivalents. A world globe adorned a shelf. The third-floor classroom resembled one in an elementary school.

Har Sin and his classmates sat around a table, scribbling with unsteady pencils into workbooks.

On this day, they were filling in the blanks in simple sentences meant to teach them about prepositions.

Har Sin is still working on the basics of sign language. Through writing and
signing exercises, he’s building up a basic vocabulary and starting to understand
some of the fundamental concepts of language.

But Har Sin got stuck on the word “behind.” He didn’t know what it meant.

He grabbed a thick picture dictionary and opened it to the letter Z. He scanned the dictionary’s last page with his index finger, his eyes fierce with concentration. He didn’t find the word there. He moved to the previous page.

For several minutes, he worked his way backward, scanning each page, one at a time, until he reached Y, then X, then W. Halfway through W, he got frustrated. He shook his head and picked up the pace, working through the section with haste, running his finger back and forth along each entry, but less deliberately.

His teacher, Jedediah Gallimore, noticed Har Sin having trouble. He walked over and waved his hand in front of Har Sin’s book to get his attention.

Gallimore pointed to the first letter of the word “behind” in Har Sin’s workbook, then to the B on the alphabet cards on the classroom’s front wall. Then he pointed to the W in the dictionary, and again to the front wall. Gallimore opened both of his hands and positioned them in front of his chest, then slowly widened them.

W and B are far apart. He waved a hand back and forth, turning the pages of an invisible book. He stopped and used his thumb and index finger to suggest a thick stack.

Har Sin watched closely. His eyes were focused with determination. He grabbed a stack of pages from the dictionary and turned them all at once. He landed in the S section.

Gallimore widened his fingers to signal a thicker stack.

Har Sin complied and turned to E.

Turn more pages, Gallimore said, waving his hand. His eyes widened and he nodded his encouragement.

Har Sin flipped more pages, a few at a time, before finally reaching B.

Gallimore pointed to the second letter in the word “behind” and helped Har Sin navigate toward it. Then toward the next, until Har Sin had landed on the elusive page. He spotted the word.

He couldn’t contain his excitement, jabbing his finger at it. He wobbled his head, closed his eyes like he was dizzy and wiped an imaginary drop of sweat from his brow, smiling.

It had taken 12 minutes.

♦♦♦

During the first few months of school, Har Sin made steady progress, learning first to write his name in wobbly letters. Sometimes, he forgot the “r.”

He mastered some basic concepts in American Sign Language, like the gesture for the word “understand,” which resembles a light bulb going off above your head. He used it often, asking if his message was clear.

Before class, Har Sin meets with classmates outside his school’s Hillcrest office.
At Deaf Community Services, he’s made friends with people like him who have
limited communication skills but who dream of a better future.

He learned the days of the week, and the gesture for “job,” along with some examples, like police officer, bartender and janitor. He’d like a job, but he knows he first has to improve his language. Someday, he’ll be able to wean himself from his dependence on his sister, maybe get his own apartment, even a girlfriend.

In the meantime, he shapes his hand into the formal words he’s learned, and mixes them with the invented gestures he’s used all his life to fill in the gaps. His schooling has given him confidence. In his class, he was the most animated student, a jokester with a hint of cockiness. He teased classmates when they offered wrong answers.

Outside of class, he started accepting every invitation to venture beyond the walls of Apartment 7.

Especially when the invitation was extended by a girl.

♦♦♦

One day in June, a young woman with long brown hair and a broad smile stopped by Apartment 7 to pick up food she’d paid Har Sin’s sister to prepare for a party.

Har Sin spotted the woman, Brigitte Young, a resettlement volunteer, walking in the courtyard outside. He ran to the kitchen to hide. When Young walked in, he leapt out from his hiding spot, hoping to startle her. But Young had her back toward Har Sin and didn’t see him.

He couldn’t scream “Boo!” like most flirtatious young men might. His attempt at playfulness failed. So he instead stood behind her and flailed his arms in front of her to get her attention. Young turned around and smiled.

Har Sin attempts to surprise Brigitte Young, a resettlement volunteer. He’s playful
around other young people — flirtatious around girls — and tries hard to
communicate despite lacking language.

He helped her load trays of food into her car. When they finished, she signaled for Har Sin and his 19-year-old nephew, Ah Kyee. She wanted to take them to the party.

Har Sin opened the car door, ready to go.

But Ah Kyee was reluctant. He was embarrassed, worried his poor English would make it hard to interact with Young’s friends. “What do I say?” he asked.

Young tried to convince Ah Kyee to accept the invitation. All the while, Har Sin stood outside the car, bounding up and down with impatience, unconcerned with the destination or the challenges it might present.

He was just eager to go.

♦♦♦

It was a Friday night in early September, and Har Sin had been in school almost five months.

He was back in the parking lot of the Mission Valley Coffee Bean, where he once sat riveted watching people communicate in sign language, in gestures that once meant nothing to him. He strained his eyes for any sign of his classmates who were supposed to meet him.

On Fridays, Har Sin goes to a coffee shop in Mission Valley where he socializes
with other sign language speakers. He’s been learning since April, and his skills
are developing quickly.

But none of them showed up, and he feigned anger standing outside the coffee shop’s front door. He cursed them in the unvocalized profanity he’d picked up in the last two years, shaping his mouth to utter the words, but only letting out small bursts of air.

He scanned the crowd for a recognizable face, but didn’t find one. He meandered back to the parking lot and lingered, but finally gave up and made his way back toward the coffee shop.

A young man was leaving, and he gestured a greeting toward Har Sin as he walked out the door.

Har Sin smiled slightly, and the man stopped.

My name is B-a-r-t, the man said.

My name is H-a-r-S-i-n.

I’m from T-e-m-e-c-u-l-a, the man said.

I’m from B-u-r-m-a.

Bart Hodge didn’t know where Burma was, but he didn’t ask. Har Sin didn’t know where Temecula was, but he didn’t ask, either.

Nice to meet you, Hodge said.

Nice to meet you.

It was a simple conversation that five months ago was impossible.

Har Sin still has many challenges ahead. He wants to find a job, but knows he
has a lot to learn first. Above, he tries to get a friend’s attention outside the
coffee shop. He can’t shout her name, so he waves his hands
in the air hoping she’ll notice.

Har Sin walked onto the patio. The sign language conversations in the air were still overwhelming, too complex, and so he drifted to the outer edge. He warmed his hands over a fire pit, still looking for his friends. He paced back and forth, uneasy about engaging in that silent cacophony of so much sign language.

All those people had language. They understood its concept and structure. Har Sin still did not. Despite his progress, he was still a mostly blank slate. He was learning English and sign language from nothing.

A pretty woman across the patio implored him with exaggerated gestures and an inviting smile to come over and talk. Har Sin walked slowly, the characteristic confidence in his stride subdued.

The woman introduced herself as Melissa.

Har Sin, he said.

Their conversation started slowly, but Melissa’s sign language was emotionally expressive, almost consuming. She opened her eyes wide and leaned her shoulders in to emphasize her interest. Before long, Har Sin was sucked in. He started using wide arm motions to tell Melissa about himself.

He didn’t tell her about the 24 years he lived without spoken or written words. He didn’t mention the long haul ahead. He didn’t say he was slowly replacing his improvised charades with real language.

He told her that he was from Burma.

That he played soccer.

That he’d only been studying for five months.

Wow! she said.

Read Part I

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

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