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This article is part of Mochi’s Summer 2022 issue, highlighting the Everyday Asian American. Media often covers Asian Americans who are exceptional and defying odds (hey Chloe Kim!) or, sadly, when tragedy strikes the Asian community. In this issue, Mochi is switching things up and celebrating what the everyday Asian American enjoys, what’s on our minds, and what life looks like for us. Check out the rest of our issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us by buying us a boba through Ko-fi.

Asian Americans have considered former presidential candidate Andrew Yang — who kicked off his political career with a presidential campaign that heavily leaned on stereotypes back in 2020 — a controversial figure within the community. After he penned an op-ed for the Washington Post at the beginning of the pandemic arguing that Asian Americans must prove their nationalism to combat xenophobia, some turned to social media to call him out, criticizing his “tone-deaf” views.

32-year-old Leila Hanaumi said she wishes hearing people would stop using the term to label this ignorant, oblivious behavior.

“When you’re using ‘tone deaf’ to describe something as insensitive, you’re associating Deaf people with that label, however unintentional that may have been,” Hanaumi said. 

The negative connotation behind the phrase perpetuates the idea among hearing individuals that Deafness is inherently bad and is especially harmful when some people in the Deaf community have a hard time accepting their identity in a society that is hearing-centered.

Being Deaf and Asian American Were Different Worlds That Never Collided 

Hanaumi, a Deaf Japanese and Korean American woman who currently lives in Austin, Texas, was born to a Deaf family — an Asian father and a white mother who divorced when she was 2 years old. She attended the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, primarily growing up with her mom.

“Many Asian and other BIPOC Deaf students who grew up at a deaf school often find that their race was ‘erased’ and their Deaf identity prioritized overall,” Hanaumi said. “That was relatively true for me too.”

While Hanaumi said her mom made sure to celebrate her Asian heritage, she didn’t proactively blend her Asian culture into their household. She had a relationship with her dad growing up and would visit her Japanese grandparents from his side of the family, but they were both hearing individuals, which proved to be a huge barrier to her connecting to her heritage. 

She was lucky to grow up with two other classmates who were half Asian and half white like her. “I had a great bond with them, so in that sense, I always knew I was Asian and was proud of it,” Hanaumi said.

Before she discovered the concept of intersectionality and fully embraced her identity as a Deaf Asian American woman, Hanaumi said her cultural heritage was “diminished” to prioritize her Deaf identity. As a college student at Gallaudet University, she learned about the word Hapa after a friend gifted her “Part Asian, 100% Hapa,” a book by artist and author Kip Fulbeck.

“In that moment, I felt like I found a key missing piece to who I was,” Hanaumi said. “Later, I learned more about the origins of that word and how it really belonged to the Native Hawaii people, not Japan or other Asian countries.”

Hanaumi said that while she identified as Hapa for a short time, she’s since stopped using the term.

For Lee Ann Tang, it wasn’t until she first met her husband when she was 19 that she accepted her identity as an Asian American. Tang, a Deaf Chinese American woman, was adopted by white parents when she was five. Except for her mother and youngest sister, Tang’s family is mostly Deaf and uses American Sign Language (ASL) in her family home. 

“Adoption means love because they give you time, and they nurture you, and they give you language access,” Tang said through an interpreter. “They teach you signing and all of that. That’s still my vision today.” 

Because of the negative stigma in hearing communities towards Deafness, some Deaf people grapple with their identity at some point in their lives. Lee Ann Tang, a Chinese American woman, said she had a hard time trying to fit into a world “full of hearing people.” Photo credit: Lee Ann Tang. Image credit: Summer L.

Because her life was Deaf-centered, Tang said she felt connected to her Deaf identity. When it came to being Asian, however, she didn’t feel the same way even though her other siblings are also of Asian descent. It wasn’t until the fourth grade that she started to unpack all the instances of racism and oppression she’s experienced.

“It was like, okay, I’m Asian. I’m struggling to fit into society that’s full of white people, full of hearing people, full of people who speak and [do] not sign,” Tang said. “I started struggling, and that’s when I started to feel really angry.”

Tang’s husband is half Korean and half Chinese and is also Deaf. Before she met him, she noted that her experience in Asian and Deaf communities was “shaky,” but she eventually found pride in her identities as an Asian American woman and as a transracial adoptee because of him.    

“When we met him, I felt much more proud,” Tang said. “He taught me patience, and my identity felt like it really fell into place, and I do identify more as an Asian American now.”

How a Term Reflects the Way Deafness is Perceived in the Hearing World

The language we use holds power. Tang considers the term “tone deaf” a “hearing society kind of term.” “It’s like you are stealing a term that’s not necessary to use from a community in order to label something else,” Tang said. She said the term “Deaf” is not about the lack of hearing since some people within the community can hear. 

Leang Ngov, a 39-year-old living in the San Francisco Bay Area, feels the term is audist and ableist. Audism, Ngov described, is discrimination based on hearing status. “I hate that people resort to confronting -ism with another -ism,” Ngov said.

Ngov is Chinese and Khmer American, and her family were refugees from Cambodia who moved to the United States after the Vietnam War. Because of this, it was difficult navigating life in and outside her family home.  

“All these cultural clashes had a lot of pressure,” Ngov said. “I felt a lot of pressure to be assimilated into U.S. culture, or white culture, and in some ways, I felt like I was taught to see the life inside my family home as inferior.” 

Ngov’s family purposefully chose to live in areas where there were a lot of Khmer refugees or Khmer Americans. And while she felt comfortable in her identities as a Deaf person and as a Khmer American early on in life, she started masking her Deaf identity at the age of 7 to try and fit in. Her family is hearing, and she acknowledges that she didn’t necessarily “self-actualize” in her Deaf identity for a long time.

“I’ve always known I was Deaf,” Ngov said. “I’ve always known I was Khmer American. I had no doubts about my identities. I think the question is, when was I proud of my identities and truly embrace these identities?”

Ngov recalls a memory from the ‘80s or ‘90s when she brought shrimp-flavored chips and bread spread with condensed milk to school for lunch one day. Her teacher and the teacher’s aide stared at the food and whispered to one another, and while Ngov couldn’t figure out what they said, she notes it was the type of look that said, “That’s a bit odd.” 

“People think that because I’m Deaf, I’m somehow immune to people’s verbal discrimination, but I don’t think that is true,” Ngov said. “I can read people’s body languages.”

Terms like “tone deaf,” Ngov said, are essentially saying that Deaf people are ignorant or oblivious due to their hearing status, which she said isn’t true.

Finding Pride and Self-Identity in the Word “Deaf”

Neha Balachandran, a 25-year-old Deaf Indian American graduate student, currently attending Gallaudet University, wonders why hearing people use the word “deaf” in a negative kind of context to begin with.

“We’re people with culture, with a language,” Balachandran said. “It’s a community behind the word Deaf.”

Before immersing herself in the Deaf world in 2015, Balachandran mainly grew up in the hearing world since she can speak orally. After discovering that she was Deaf when she was 4 years old, Balachandran’s parents got hearing aids for her and put her in speech therapy. While she was exposed to ASL, her hearing family wouldn’t practice with her at home, so she eventually lost what she learned.

Balachandran recalls joining an ASL club at her high school, hoping to learn the language with other people who would want to learn it too. When she showed up to a meeting, the students were playing games instead. Luckily, the club director identified as a coda, or the hearing child of Deaf adults, and insisted that she join and learn ASL after she noticed her in the meeting.

“It just clicked,” Balachandran said. “I just felt like that’s the missing piece that I’ve been looking for, ‘cause I’ve always like felt something was missing, but I just never knew what.”

It didn’t hit Balachandran until high school that she was different from other Desi kids, not just because she’s Deaf but because her parents weren’t strict about academics. Throughout high school, she internalized that academic pressure so she could relate to her peers. Right now, she’s just trying to balance her identities as an American and Indian woman, living in both the Deaf and hearing communities.

While some Deaf people speak American Sign Language, not everyone in the community does. Deaf individuals have varied experiences when it comes to ASL, which depends on the environment they grew up in and how accessible learning the language was to them.

“It’s just four different worlds,” Balachandran said. “Trying to navigate is pretty tough, but I’m still finding my way just being myself.”

Joey Antonio knows what it’s like having to balance overlapping identities too. Throughout middle school, they were trying to fit in all while confronting their intersectionalities as a deaf, queer Asian person. “In the context of America, it’s typically made for cis, straight, white people,” Antonio said through an interpreter.

A Filipino American dancer who was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Antonio is a first-generation Asian American whose family immigrated from the Philippines. Antonio’s older brother is Deaf but lost his hearing later on in life. Because their brother was put into a speech-language program, Antonio was placed into one when they were in elementary school. 

Despite the barriers they experienced going through the education system, they graduated high school and eventually enrolled in community college. Antonio said there were always expectations placed upon them to be self-sufficient.

“In the ‘90s to the 2000s, the mindset of people is like, ‘Oh, you’re Asian, you should be smart,’” Antonio said. “That’s kind of the type of stereotypes that’s applied to Asian people, so they assumed that I was smart because I was of Asian heritage.” 

At community college, Antonio faced the same systemic problems they experienced in high school, missing out on a lot of information during class because they had to rely on lip-reading. They finally decided to drop out of college to focus on dancing. 

Antonio became more involved with the dancing community and was a member of ASIID, competing in the second season of “America’s Best Dance Crew,” where the team placed sixth and got to tour across the country with dance crews like The Jabbawockeez.

“Dancing was always my good feeling,” Antonio said. “It was the thing that I was good at. I could laugh while doing it, I could [feel] joy, so I kept that positivity inside myself.” They eventually moved to California to pursue dancing and enrolled in California State University, Northridge, where they learned more about Deaf culture and got encouragement when it came to their Deaf identity. 

“All Deaf people have different stages of acceptance of themselves, as a deaf person,” Antonio said. “There’s that level of anger where you get angry with your family, but I didn’t want to hold that hostility against my family.”

Antonio said they want to “feed that energy into that next stage of acceptance and continue growing and developing” their identity. Recently, the dancer graduated with a master’s degree from Gallaudet University.

How to Support Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Asian Americans

When it comes to understanding Deaf Asian American culture, there’s still a long way to go.

After Antonio’s parents watched the 2021 Oscar-winning “CODA,” a movie that follows Ruby, the only hearing member of a Deaf family who begins gravitating toward singing, their parents reflected on their own experiences raising two Deaf children. Antonio’s parents have started to learn ASL but still believe that since Antonio can talk, Antonio should do it.

“They still have this feeling of, like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’” Antonio said. “‘You can do it. Do it! Talk. You’re great, do it. They’ll understand you.’ But will I understand you?”

A lot of hearing Asian families still don’t accept Deaf people, even if it’s a part of their identities. “It doesn’t matter what language you use. It doesn’t matter what communication model. At the end of the day, you’re Deaf, and that’s what really sticks to Asian parents’ minds,” Tang said.

Balachandran wants the hearing community to unpack the cultural views and traditional beliefs on disability, including the mindset that deaf people or people with disabilities can’t amount to anything. “They just need to unpack and just need to re-evaluate,” Balachandran said. “Know that we can do the same thing that hearing, able-bodied people can do.”

Ngov hopes that hearing Asian Americans recognize the “privilege” that comes with having resources to explore your cultural identity, saying that she felt like she could’ve connected more to her cultural identity as an Asian American if she were hearing. She said these resources should be more accessible and readily available but feels that the hearing world makes accessibility feel like an additional and unnecessary burden when it shouldn’t be.

“It really, truly is a privilege to have an access to your cultural identity,” Ngov said. “I know that [my connection] could’ve been better, and I do envy my hearing Asian American friends or families for having such wealth, knowledge, or understanding about their cultural identity.”

In addition to learning sign language, Hanaumi recommends that the hearing community caption the content they create and build an accessibility budget for any type of event planning that would cover accommodations, such as ASL interpreters.

“If nothing else, please at least remember that not everyone is able to hear you, and they may have unique communication styles,” Hanaumi said. “Don’t panic. We can still communicate if we just work together.”

While there are things the hearing community doesn’t understand about Deaf culture, Hanaumi wants the hearing community to recognize that there is so much more to the Deaf community than their Deafness.

“We’re lit, y’all,” Hanaumi said.

Writer’s note: Because American Sign Language has its own grammar and sentence structure, direct quotes of sources who used interpreters are not exact translations of what the sources said. Rather, they are interpretations of what the sources are saying in American Sign Language.

Image credits: Summer L.

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  • Summer L. probably knows that she needs to find a better writing process. Probably. But here she is, writing and eating vegan kaldereta at the same time. Find her on Twitter, where she tries to balance professionalism and her love for K-pop.

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