Reading the labels of canned beans

May 19, 2016 – 2:34 pm

My friend Sheila recently shared this article about two (hypothetical) deaf kids of hearing families at the dinner table. It’s absolutely worth a read. Both children in the story are about 8 years old, sovaldi and go to a school where they’re taught in ASL; both are bilingual in spoken English and ASL, and both have hearing parents who care for them greatly and want only what will give their children a better life. There are no bad guys here.

In this fictional story, the parents of “Sophia” sign, and use ASL with her at the dinner table; family mealtimes are full of learning and interaction for her, active participation, question-asking, learning more about the world, about her parents’ lives, telling them about hers. The parents of “Caleb” don’t, because they think it’s important that he learn to interact with the hearing world. Caleb learns to keep his CI on to keep his parents happy, even if he doesn’t understand. He learns how to pretend. He loves them. He knows they love him. It’s not a bad childhood, honestly.

And yet.

“Over time, Caleb has learned that it’s best to pretend to understand more than he does, so he will annoy them less… [at dinner, when his parents smile,] Caleb smiles as well, because he likes to see his parents happy, even if he knows nothing about what they’re saying. He has not learned anything from this dinnertime, but he doesn’t usually, so he does not think anything of it…  Caleb clears his plate and leaves the room to brush and ready himself for bed. He is not unhappy, and is in fact mostly fine, but there is a subtle quietness in his heart that he doesn’t completely understand. He can’t identify it yet.”

I grew up closer to Caleb, without the CI, other d/Deaf/HoH kids around, ASL exposure, and with a family that regularly creamed-up English sentences into a creole’d rush of Southeast Asian languages. I know Caleb is a fictional character, but his experience hits close to mine in many ways, though I exhibited no visible academic delays (plenty of social ones, though — and although I was always at the top of my classes as a kid, I wonder what sort of learner I might have been with full access to the world… but that’s a complex experiment that can’t be re-run in any case, and I could have turned into a hypersocial party girl who thought studying was boring, too).

When I was a kid, one of the running family jokes was that I would read anything, anytime. Literally. Anything. I’d grab a can of beans out of the pantry and read the nutritional labels, and I honestly would find it fascinating (“whoa, ascorbic acid is in everything!”). Everybody found it weird and hilarious and cute; I thought it was pretty funny, too. I didn’t know why I kept wanting to read at dinner — and really, all the time — but I just did. It felt like I always had to, like the books were food and I was always starving.

The joke’s still funny, but now it’s also sad — looking at that family joke now, the books were food, and I was always starving. I look back now and see a little kid so ravenous for information that she scavenged the best of what was available to her, which was… ingredient labels. On canned beans. In hindsight, I understand this as tiny-Mel’s attempt to make family mealtime (and all times, for that matter) an information acquisition opportunity, since most of the discussion was… not entirely a closed book, but a heavily blacked-out, liquid-smeared, highly effortful one to read. In many ways, I made my own learning experiences at dinner, got my own content to the table when I was allowed or was able to sneak it.

Sometimes that content was a book I’d try to hide under the table and read until my parents scolded me for not “being present with the family” at dinner, which I could only do through lipreading. Lipreading is exhausting and inaccurate — I say this now as an adult with advanced degrees and a high degree of metalinguistic fluency and topical knowledge with which to guess, so it was probably even worse for a small child who was still developing language skills and vocabulary, and had less knowledge of the world to guess with.

Books are hard to hide under the edges of the table, so it wasn’t usually books. It was typically ingredients. Cereal boxes. The aforementioned cans of beans. Or advertising catalogues that had arrived in the mail. (I became hyper-aware of what I’d now call a typology of the rhetoric of bulk mailings.) This was the information about the world that I could make sense of as a child.

This is not too different from the information I can usually make sense of during hearing dinners now… the difference is that I have more coping strategies and use my speaking privilege like a powerfully wielded machete to get myself into discussions, I have more capacity to moderate and strategize my use of energy and brainpower to focus on important cues and topics, and I have a far richer mental model of the world and all of the ideas in it that I can use to make sense of the spots of information I am able to extract. The information, though… it’s still a crawl, a drip, a broken stream.

I remember this past fall when I was invited to the house of a Deaf family I’ve come to know in town, along with a bunch of other Deaf folks who were mutual friends of ours from church. My ASL receptive skills, at that point, were enough to make sense of most conversation — not to understand it perfectly, but it had surpassed lipreading in terms of cost/benefit (energy expenditure vs accuracy) tradeoff. I wasn’t really signing much myself, yet. I was a linguistic toddler.

I remember sitting in their kitchen and just watching… people… talk. About… local restaurants. Their jobs. Their kids. The snacks. Picking up their kids from school. Job hunting. Whether a kid was allowed to have another piece of chocolate. Topics shifted, nothing was particularly important, nothing was… it was… the most insignificant conversational content ever. And I sat there, wide-eyed, thinking: oh, this is how it is — this is a type of conversation I have never seen — this is what people talk about after meals, this is…

This is the rhetoric of everyday life, the stuff I kept on getting error pages for during my childhood attempts to access it — the “oh, it’s not important” response, or the classic of “I’ll tell you later” with a later that never came. This is the experience of an ethnographer plunged into a foreign culture, but the culture I was plunged into was actually… my own, except with (partial) access to the language for the first time.

“Making the familiar strange” is a common phrase used in training qualitative research students, but I think I might always live inside a world that’s somehow strange to me — as do we all, but I am very much aware of this particular way in which the world is strange to me because of how I grew up with communication.

That’s all I’ve got for now.

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  1. 2 Responses to “Reading the labels of canned beans”

  2. This is why I want (and want Andrew) to learn to sign. I have a good alphabet and a tiny vocabulary and you are my friend and I love your and desire mutual clarity from our interactions.

    Also, I could hear just fine and was still sneaking books under the table, while walking, etc.

    By Bonnie on May 19, 2016

  3. “the rhetoric of everyday life, the stuff I kept on getting error pages for during my childhood attempts to access it — the “oh, it’s not important” response, or the classic of “I’ll tell you later” with a later that never came.”

    I ache for you. Thank you for sharing this.

    By Sumana Harihareswara on May 23, 2016

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