It was very striking. The impression was not like someone had pressed the "mute" button on the boys' conversation. When you press the "mute" button on the TV you still see actors with their lips moving, behaving like people whose lives are governed by sound and heard conversation. When someone presses the "mute" button you are aware that a vital component of the scene has been removed. But nothing vital, indeed nothing at all, had been removed from these boys' conversations. Though they made no sound every aspect of their energetic interactions reached me as I walked about five meters behind them.
The boys were deaf, of course. They signed to talk to each other when they spoke, but more strikingly they also were apparently used to winding up their facial expressions and body language to 150% percent when speaking. It wasn't like with babies where self-censorship concerning facial expression is unlearned and thus every emotion is registered on a baby's face. No, to these boys it was more that their faces were equally important in terms of communication as their hands. They spoke with their faces as well as their hands. When one of the boys accidentally barreled into me while in mid-bounce he immediately shrank away, his face a picture of apologetic shame. He said nothing, of course, but at the same time he was saying "Sorry ma'am" so clearly that I could hear it. I had already been watching the boys for about five minutes and their antics were so comical and charming to me that I couldn't help but smile broadly when one of them looked back at me. Seeing me smile, the boy smiled back, a smile of such great, expressive happiness that it was extraordinarily striking. It occurred to me then that perhaps no hearing person would be able to muster such an expressive grin. Two people smiling at each other in the hearing world is a form of communication, of course, but two deaf people smiling at each other are actually talking. Expressions are words, and like words they have a myriad of different meanings.
I was thinking about the expressiveness of deaf people. I knew about one deaf actor, Marlee Matlin, and while I found her to be a very good actor I didn't think of her as being particularly expressive.... no more so than hearing actors, I should say. But then I remembered another much less well-known deaf actor that I had seen on an episode of "Scrubs." His name was Troy Kotsur and he played a deaf father on the episode "My Words of Wisdom." When I watched the episode at the time I had no idea that Kotsur himself was deaf. Kotsur did not speak during the entire episode but he was so extraordinarily good in his minor guest-star role, his facial expressions so beautifully revealing, that I immediately went onto imdb.com to see what other movies he had done. To my disappointment Mr. Kotsur appears to be mostly a stage actor, his cinematic roles limited to very small parts on TV shows. I also found out on imdb.com that Kotsur was deaf in real life as well, though I don't know if he speaks. Two years later, as I walked home after my encounter with the teenagers, I thought about this. Could the ability to speak rob us of our expressiveness?
I thought about this a few months later when I was in an internet cafe. I was going through my online Korean language lessons when I noticed that the lady sitting next to me was having a bilingual conversation of her own. She appeared to be on a Korean language site though she herself looked Mongolian. Perhaps she was Korean but I didn't get that vibe from her. Anyway, through her Korean language Skype set-up she was having a conversation with an elderly gentleman at the other end (who did indeed look Korean) using her hands entirely. She was using the webcam so that her hands were in view during the entire conversation.
The lady had a certain lack of expression in her facial features while she was signing that made me assume that she was not deaf. The man she was speaking to, however, certainly was. His expressions, even with the fuzzy digital Skype camera images, were very pronounced. Of course, even if her father had been a hearing man his expressions would have been pronounced given the news that (I guessed) she was giving him.
She pointed at her stomach and then raised her hands, showing two fingers.
I heard no sound from the computer but her father's expression was clearly saying "WHAAAAAT?!"
Again the lady sitting beside me pointed at her stomach and raised two fingers.
Her father pointed to his stomach and raised two fingers with a questioning expression. "Are you sure??"
The lady nodded, again pointed to her stomach and again raised two fingers to confirm her point.
This action went on for about ten minutes, as if the lady's father could not quite digest the information. I assumed the lady was telling her dad that she was expecting twins. Or had two abdominal tumors, but I doubt that second interpretation... especially when the lady then took out two bottles of prenatal vitamins and held them up to the webcam for her father to analyze.
But never, really, have I actually communicated face-to-face with someone who was deaf .... or at least not since 2007. In 2007, when I was finishing up my last year in Peace Corps, I went to the Black Market with a couple of friends of mine. The Black Market in Ulan Baatar, I should hasten to amend, is not actually an illegal market. According to a friend of mine it USED to be illegal when Mongolia was ruled by a communist government and all goods bought and sold in a capitalist way were confiscated. People bought extra goods clandestinely through the Black Market... though now under Mongolia's liberal democratic government the "Black Market" is simply called "Naraan Tuul" and is the largest open-air place of business in the entire country. It's great fun to walk around and do a bit of shopping.
I and two other girls were doing exactly that back in 2007. One of the girls (I'll call her "Helen") was shopping for a pair of sneakers and she was taking quite a long time. Occasionally my services were requested since I spoke the most decent Mongolian of the three of us and my duties as translator left me puffed up to the gills in pride at first. Unfortunately, hour after wearysome hour later as Helen refused to make a decision about what pair of shoes to buy, I was looking at the rows of shoe stalls and thinking that if I never saw a cheap pair of Chinese-made Nike rip-offs again in my life that alone would stand as proof that God was merciful.
A bored Mongolian man and his Russian wife browsed for back-to-school shoes with their cheerful adolescent children. A stall-lady seated next to a rack of beautiful, shiny, knee-high leather boots that would never fit my feet in a million years laughed at something the stall-lady situated across from her said. A child sitting next to a table of neatly-twinned men's loafers dug into a styrofoam container of take-out fried noodles and oh God was it lunch already? When oh when would Helen pick out her fucking shoes?
Three rows into the shoe section at Naraan Tuul and feeling very out of sorts I sauntered back to the table where Helen was perusing a pair of black canvas sneakers. "How much?" she asked the salesman behind the counter. Without responding he picked up a calculater and typed in the price in turgrugs. It was a little high. "How about making it cheaper?" I asked, "They're just sneakers." The man did not respond but instead typed a price into his computer that was lower by a miniscule amount. At this point I was feeling very irritated. I would bargain, the man would hassle, Helen would dither, we would wait in the hot sun and finally Helen would just wander off to the next stall to browse the shoes there while I and Helen's friend saw our weekend get eaten up hour by hour in this blazingly hot, noisy, crowded, dangerous (Naruun Tuul is infamous for its pickpockets) open-air market. Plus the salesman was, for some reason, really irritating me. Surely basic politeness requires that you respond verbally to any inquiry directed towards you! Just typing numbers into a calculator without speaking was really rude. It was as if - despite the fact that both Helen and I had just demonstrated that we spoke Mongolian well enough to conduct a transaction- the man considered us foreignors to not be worth the effort of speaking.
Hot and angry at both Helen for taking so long to pick shoes and the salesman for clearly not even bothering to speak to me like a human being I snapped, "No, cheaper! That price isn't going to work." The salesman looked a bit taken aback. He then waved another shoe salesman, an older, larger man, over to his booth and they both started signing rapidly to each other. Realizing that both salesmen were deaf I felt a bit abashed. My bad mood evaporated a good deal. Both men signed a bit more as they discussed the deal, looked over at me, smiled a little and then signed a little more before turning back to the booth. At this point the younger shoe salesman touched my arm, lowered his head, clasped his hands and wrung them in a rather poignant manner. He was clearly saying, "I'm truly, deeply sorry." He then held out his calculator and punched in a much-reduced price. "Oh okay," I said, smiling and giving a thumbs-up, "Hey Helen, what do you think of this price?"
"Weeeeell... I dunno.. I mean, we haven't seen all the shoes stall yet."
For God's sake!
I looked at the salesman with what I hoped was an apologetic expression. He touched my arm again and typed in an even lower price on his calculator. He then smiled and then lifted his left hand. He brought the tips of his fingers towards his thumb, forming what looked like a tiny hand-puppet. He then made another hand-puppet with his right hand. He brought the "mouths" of his hand-puppets together so that it looked like they were kissing. He smiled at me again.
I stared, smiling a little. A mis-translation here could be fatal.
"I think he wants you to kiss him," Helen's friend said, verifying my suspicions.
"In exchange for a lower price for the shoes?" I asked. The salesman was actually rather adorable but I had been dealing with enough language barriers in Mongolia without being forced to learn MSL in the process. I wanted to politely refuse the man without insulting him and I had no idea how to do this. The older man behind the salesman also tried some signs, one of which involved holding his arms out in front of him and crooking them so that his left forearm rested on his right forearm. It looked rather like the stereotypical positions Native American chieftons assumed in Disney cartoons in the fifties. The older man then lifted up his left forearm so that it was at a 45 degree angle from his right forearm. Then the older man carefully placed his left forearm back on his right. This sign was a little more difficult to interpret than the kissing hand-puppets. Was he imitating the motion of a plane taking off and consequently asking me where I was from? Was he asking me when I would be leaving Mongolia, presumably by plane? Or was he, with his forearms, imitating the motion of a body lying down in bed and thus propositioning me? Was there any hearing Mongolian salesperson who knew MSL and could translate for me? I looked up and down the rows of stalls, of salespeople haggling with customers and talking to each other and I realized that this entire row of shoe salesmen were ALL deaf! Clearly this market had a special area for deaf shoe peddlers.
In the end I think I simply blushed and threw the younger shoe salesman a kiss, hoping that he would be satisfied with that. I was simply flattered that he had asked me to kiss him. Unfortunately for him the shoes went unbought because at this point I and Helen's friend were simply too sick of the heat-exhaustion and noise to put up with Helen's indecision any longer. We told her we were leaving and she reluctantly followed us. We then had the taxi driver drop her off at a department store to continue her shopping alone while Helen's friend and I went to indulge in a late lunch. We were absolutely exhausted, voiceless but no longer so vivacious.