The first time was at a coffee shop in the Old Jaffa port of Israel. There is a deaf-and-blind theater company there, and next door a coffee shop staffed entirely by deaf employees raises money for the theater. There are laminated menus there that show basic signs in Hebrew Sign Language.
When our waitress came over, I immediately began chatting away in my native language, American Sign Language (ASL). It's a language I feel more comfortable in than Hebrew, Hebrew Sign Language, and sometimes even English. The waitress rolled her eyes and walked away.
Two minutes later, a different employee came over. "What the fuck are you doing?" he demanded in snappy ASL. "You're cheating." And just like that, we were bickering like siblings. Soon, we were chatting away about my experiences traveling in Israel and his desire to visit America.
Like many young Deaf people I've met around the world, he was learning ASL in hopes of attending Gallaudet University, the world's only university exclusively for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. It's where my own parents met and fell in love as undergraduates. Because of Gallaudet (as well as the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology), many deaf men and women around the world are learning ASL in addition to their native languages, to the point where it is becoming as ubiquitous a second language as English in some countries.
One of the most common misconceptions about sign language is that it's universal across nations. I always make a point of saying that I'm fluent in American Sign Language to drive that point home, but people still want to know if I was involved in any deaf community stuff when I lived in England (no, I don't know British Sign Language) or if I knew that the Mandela funeral interpreter was a phony (no, I also don't know South African Sign Language).
Probably because I grew up bilingual, I've always liked learning languages—or at least trying to. In the Santiago airport, I saw a group of Chilean deaf people waiting ahead of me in the security line. I figured out who the interpreter was when I saw a young woman from the group speaking to the desk agent. Then, when there was a good moment, I marched over to her without even bothering to say hello. "Soy Americana! Mis padres son sordos!" I announced to her. (In the Deaf community, we have a reputation for being abrupt and skipping pleasantries.) Immediately, she pulled me close to her for a hug, then began to translate for the group. Soon, they were rushing over to say hi, to wave, to briefly put their hands in mine. They taught me the Chilean sign for hola. It is nearly identical to the American one for connection or relationship. They already knew the American sign for America, which is made of criss-crossed fingers held in a sideways V to resemble a fence. Soon, we were posing for group photos.
Between my middle-school Spanish and Julieta's middle-school English, we were able to tell each other that we were both CODAs—Children of Deaf Adults. Although the term quite simply refers to the hearing kids of Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing parents, it has come to represent much more. The group CODA International organizes annual conferences and helps us to find and connect with each other. In some ways, CODA kids like Julieta, even if our primary languages are not the same, understand me better than the kids I grew up around my entire life. We know what it's like to be to translate between languages and cultures from an early age, to get angry or sad and find comfort in speaking with our hands instead of our voices. We have a patented dirty look that we can summon on command whenever anyone uses the words "sorry for you." We remember what it was like to be a little kid who could listen to the radio on full blast but get in trouble for walking up and down the stairs too loudly.
In a museum in Seoul, I spotted a sign-language tour. Once again, I bum-rushed the interpreter (who fortunately spoke some English) and was immediately inducted into a new group of friends. In Victoria, British Columbia, the random man I chose to ask for directions on a street corner shrugged at me and pointed to his ears in that unmistakable way, and I instantly switched into ASL and wound up in a Two-Degrees-of-Separation conversation that's so common in the American/Anglo-Canadian Deaf community. I was around the corner from where I needed to be, but I still got there half an hour late because Paul and I got into a mock-fight about whether his signing had a Canadian accent. (I was in Canada, he pointed out, so my signing had an American one.)
I've spent most of my life explaining people that there's no such thing as a universal language. And yet, thanks to the Deaf people I've met on my travels, I've started to believe that there is—a kind of energy that we hold in our hands, in the way that we clasp each other as if we're old friends reunited after 20 years. Thanks to my work as a travel writer, I've had the ability to see much of the world—and to find members of my Deaf family.
Traveling often sees us at our most vulnerable. We get lost, get jetlagged, get scammed by the guy selling umbrellas. And in my most vulnerable moments, I always find myself with a particular craving affection for ASL, the language of home. Sometimes, in places many thousands of miles from home, where the spoken language is entirely unfamiliar to me, I see a few pairs of flying hands and suddenly know that I am safe, and that home has once again found me.
Lilit Marcus lives in Brooklyn but tries to get out of it as much as possible. Her favorite travel destinations include Lisbon, Tel Aviv, Nashville, and Mexico City. Follow her on Twitter at @lilitmarcus and at Conde Nast Traveler, where she is Contributing Digital Editor.
Image via Shutterstock.
Flygirl is Jezebel's new travel blog dedicated to adventures big and small, tips and tricks for navigation, and exploring the world at large. Have a story or an idea? We're always taking submissions; email us with "Flygirl" AND your topic in the subject line. No pitches in the comments, please.