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Deaf Wellesley College graduate wins round-the-world trip with couch-surfing video

Posted by Leslie Anderson  January 31, 2013 03:27 PM

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You might not think of a couch as your ticket to travel around the world – but Wellesley College class of 2012 alum Jenny Lu went couchsurfing through Europe and won herself a round-the-world trip in the process.

Couchsurfing is a cheap way to travel: surfers create an account with Couchsurfing.org and connect with fellow surfers in far-flung locations. Instead of paying for a hotel, travelers stay for free with locals.

Lu, who is deaf, had always wanted to meet people like her around the world – and the video she made about her journey won her a round-the-world trip, courtesy of Couchsurfing.org "Get Inspired" video contest.

Below is an email interview with Lu about her experience. (The capital D denotes those who identify themselves as being culturally Deaf.)

1. What inspired you to want to travel the world meeting other deaf people?

Foreign language courses are readily offered in schools for hearing students. For many, these classes are some of the first culturally immersive experiences, although they remain inaccessible to Deaf people. Since many foreign sign languages are not officially recognized as true languages, they are resultantly considered to be of very little importance in the classroom. For these reasons, I aspire to immerse myself in different international Deaf communities and learn their respective sign languages.

2. Can you give me an idea of the scope of your trip - when did you go, for how long, and where did you stay?

I traveled for nearly three months in Western Europe, visiting Ireland, France, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain. For the majority of the trip, I stayed with local people who I met through Deaf events, festivals and the Couchsurfing database.

3. Did you have a favorite place or group of people?

I deeply appreciated what each Deaf community had to offer. I did not get to know the Italian or Spanish Deaf communities to the extent that I wanted to because of my brief stay in these countries. On the other hand, I had the privilege of visiting France the longest, where I made stronger ties with the Deaf community. In Marseille, I stayed with a young Taiwanese woman who recently moved to France. As a new French Sign Language (LSF - langue des signes française) learner, she found greater ease in connecting with the Deaf rather than the hearing population of France, as she, too, understood the feeling of being a foreigner. Because of her ability to sign in LSF, many of her Taiwanese and French Deaf friends were more apt to share stories about their respective cultures. This instance, among others, brought me to the realization that opportunities for cultural exchange between Deaf communities are seriously lacking.

I stayed in Paris during the commemoration of Abbé Charles-Michel de l'Épée’s 300th birthday; an occasion which celebrated the history of LSF and drew in hundreds of Deaf folks from all across Europe. An important figure in Deaf education, l'Épée founded the first Deaf school in the world, located in Paris. Among other things, the celebration prompted an important dialogue concerning the status of Deaf education, politics and science in France.

4. Were you able to actually communicate with sign language speakers form other countries? Learning a new sign language is like learning a new spoken language, right -- how did you handle communication?

I communicated with foreign sign language users by heavily relying on International Sign, which is a pidgin sign language that has vocabulary drawn from many different sign languages. It is a rudimentary and simplified form unlike natural sign languages. However, there were many people who did not know International Sign, but would still be able to carry out conversations through the use of gestures and iconic signs, the latter of which being characterized by handshapes that adopt those similar to the actual objects themselves. Since many sign languages share similar grammatical features, my conversations often flowed smoothly.

5. Are there similarities in sign languages of other countries? Are there any universals that you found? For example, Latin words are found in lots of languages - is there a sign language equivalent?

Contrary to the popular misconception that there is a universal sign language, not all sign languages are the same. However, just like spoken languages, there are sign language families. For instance, I saw some similarities in the lexicon of Irish Sign Language (ISL), American Sign Language (ASL), and LSF, as ASL and ISL are both influenced by LSF. For this reason, I found communicating with the French or Irish much easier than Swiss Germans.

6. Were there any moments that really surprised you?

In Switzerland, there are four spoken languages, and similarly, three sign languages – Italian, Swiss German, and French. Swiss Germans reside in the northern part of country while the French reside in the south. In Zurich, I attended a poetry slam event that saw an audience of Deaf people from both regions. Even though they all identify themselves as being Swiss, the French and Swiss Germans did not interact with each other due to stark differences in their sign languages. This observation surprised me, primarily because I had assumed that the Deaf community in this country would be more intimate, a possible product of its small size.

I also saw how the local culture and customs could have a similar influence on both spoken and signed languages. For instance, the French in Switzerland and France both use LSF, but the French Deaf people would sign at a much more rapid pace compared to the Swiss Deaf people, a difference that can be found in spoken French too. There were also differences in the inherent quality of sign languages. When compared to ISL or Swiss German sign language, I found LSF to be more aesthetically poetic and iconic in form.

7. Are there any things about traveling the world as a deaf person that a hearing person wouldn't think of? What might surprise non-deaf people about your experience?

Traveling naturally involves linguistic challenges like communicating with local people, so people – even deaf folks - are often surprised to learn that it is possible for a Deaf person to travel solo. Being deaf can be an additional challenge when it comes to communication, but I believe how you make your experience is tied to your perception of traveling and your ability to understand where others come from. There’s also the challenge of connecting with Deaf communities, which aren’t as visible compared to the local hearing communities. My trip involved a quite bit of research and effort to network through people.

8. How did this experience change you?

Toward the end of my trip, I felt more confident and comfortable with traveling in solitude. More importantly, I became more aware. I saw a continuous strand of injustices in all of these countries. For instance, sign languages are not officially recognized in many countries, which decreases viable educational and work opportunities for deaf people. The Irish are struggling to establish official recognition of ISL, which has unfortunately stagnated government participation in the development of bilingual education (ISL/English). Only about 10% of television is captioned in Switzerland, rendering most news stations inaccessible to the deaf. At a conference celebrating LSF and Deaf education and culture in France, the majority of the speakers were hearing and unrepresentative of the Deaf community. Due to scarce availability of interpreters as well as a lack of laws that protect their rights, many deaf people are unable to achieve upward mobility in their jobs and are not encouraged to pursue careers of their desire. Having learned and seen all of this, I feel extraordinarily fortunate to be born in a country where there are laws in place that protect my rights as a deaf individual.

9. Where do you want to go for your around-the-world trip?

I want to visit remote Deaf villages in Africa or Asia. Some of these communities lack basic resources that can be found in American and European Deaf communities, which could have an enormous impact on the way deaf children and their respective cultures are developed. Being a first generation Asian American, I still have much to learn about my family's country of origin, China. Meeting the Chinese Deaf community and learning more about my heritage would be a great privilege.

10. What career path are you hoping to follow?

I’m currently a researcher at University College of London, focusing on cognitive and language development in deaf children acquiring BSL. My research and travel experiences, with specific regard to Deaf culture and sign languages, have been influential in my aspiration to become an academician. I hope to participate in research and educational reforms that would continue to positively shape the face of the Deaf community.

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com.

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