VOICES Ideas and Insight From Explorers
In Battambang, I became a detective, tracking down people and making connections with people with a few surprises along the way. I met such interesting people, all connected by their work in the contemporary art scene in Cambodia.
The men (and occasionally, a woman) show up at the entrance of Deaf Development Programme, standing uncertainly by the corrugated steel gate, downcast eyes on their feet, as the person who brought them to DDP speaks to the elderly guard at the painted wooden desk just inside. They are often picked up from the streets, mostly by the riverside, by a good Samaritan who then bundles them into a tuk-tuk to bring them to DDP.
By the end of the day, the lime green wall was covered with fluttering pieces of white copy paper, some with expressive drawings, others with words in Khmer script. Some of the paper were taped together in groups based on their thematic content. Tired participants sat in clusters, some checking Facebook, others chatting with friends from distant provinces they hadn’t seen in some time. On Tuesday, participants from three of the NGOs serving signing deaf people in Cambodia, Deaf Development Programme, Epic Arts and Krousar Thmey, gathered in a room in a large building around the corner from the entrance to S-21, the notorious Khmer Rouge prison, to discuss their priorities for deaf people in Cambodia.
It all began with a funny story, followed by an innocent question about who sleeps where. Seeing Srey’s embarrassed expression, I wished I hadn’t asked. Srey is deaf and her husband is hearing. He doesn’t know Cambodian Sign Language and has no desire to learn. Srey is not the only one. This particular marriage, arranged by Srey’s parents, is one of many marriages in Cambodia arranged by parents who don’t want their deaf child to marry another deaf person.
My first brush with the medical system in Cambodia was in late November when a close friend had to suddenly leave a luncheon she was hosting at her house to interpret for someone at a hospital. She told us to please stay, continue eating and drinking. It didn’t occur to me that the situation at the hospital might involve a friend of mine, who was about to go through one of the worst experiences of her life. In late January, another deaf friend was almost cremated alive after being declared dead by her doctors.
Just before I left Phnom Penh to travel to Laos, a gruesome photograph appeared in my Facebook newsfeed of a young man, laying on a hospital gurney with his eyes closed, intubated, arm dangling and covered in bandages, blood seeping through the linen. This image, posted by his sister, was accompanied by a desperate plea, “Please, brother, please live!”
Issues of translation and intent is always challenging when working with several languages. On Wednesday, I had the good fortune to be invited to my friends’ home to celebrate the year of the hoofed creature that bleats and eats grass. How people are discussing this holiday in the media makes me think more about labels and how they are created, especially as it relates to my own work.
Disability is big business in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia. On almost every street there is a sign, sometimes several in a row, advertising massages by blind people. In addition to these ubiquitous blind massage businesses, there are also shops advertising clothing and accessories ”made by people with disabilities.” I am inclined to be wary of businesses that use this marketing approach, a wariness intensified by its currency in Cambodia.
Many deaf people living in rural Cambodia wait with great anticipation for visits from the Deaf Development Programme outreach teams. Often, it is the only opportunity they have to communicate in sign language.
This was one of the very few opportunities I had during fieldwork to observe contexts in which it was possible that some of the people involved would be seeing sign language for the first time. Over two days, I observed how transformative being with other deaf people and having a shared sign language was for these students. It began with learning their names in sign language.
In the bluish early morning light, we gathered by the gate of Deaf Development Programme (DDP) with our provisions of fully-charged smartphones, water, face masks, cameras and scarves for what promised to be a long day. The four of us, a teacher, an interpreter, a deaf interpreter and a tag-along anthropologist, climbed into a tuk-tuk and set off, navigating the morning traffic on our way to find deaf people in the villages.
On the white board, nine words in Khmer are listed in blue. In the cool, dim room, members of the Cambodian Sign Language committee are seated at an oval conference table scattered with the various implements essential to their work—iced coffee sweetened by condensed milk, a Khmer-English dictionary, pencils and paper. Papers ruffle on the table as a breeze surges through the barred window, slightly swinging the heavy green shutters. Over the next three hours, the committee will invent four new signs.
Chamroeun spun through the centuries, acting out battles with Siam, the fall of the Angkor Empire, the arrival of the French, and then independence. As we entered modernity, Chamroeun became Lon Nol, the U.S.-backed Prime Minister deposed in 1975, then King Sihanouk in exile in China, and finally, a Khmer Rouge solider. His epic performance concludes with an reenactment of the 1979 Vietnamese invasion. As Cambodian history unfolded before my eyes, I couldn’t help but think about its implications for deaf people.
What happens when a shared language is not an option for communication? Body parts become elements of a narrative. Rocking hands, sweeping arms, and finger-pointing compose a story. Chronicles are laboriously written out in ballpoint ink on the hand. Nearby objects, such as maps, become visual tools to find your way towards a mutual understanding.
As I meet more and more people at various NGOs and government ministries who tell me about their need for data on the situation of deaf people in Cambodia to support their work, it is not only the observations of the influential people in the non-government and government sectors that make me realize the impact I have by simply being here.