How My Deaf Parents Taught Me to Take on the World

Lauren: Putting the awkward in adventure

The first time I traveled on my own I spent ten minutes in the hostel common room working up the courage to ask a stranger where she’d bought her bottle of water. She didn’t answer immediately, letting the background noise speak for her: the low drone of an Evian vending machine. I felt slightly stupid, like the time one of the popular girls in high school said hello to me in the gym. I’d smiled back and realized too late that she was looking right past me to her friend. That had been more embarrassing because I kept passing her in the halls; at least once I left Dublin, I’d probably never run into the water girl again.

I collected my bottled water and my guidebook and set off as though I had a purpose, when I was really trying to walk off the unsettled feeling in my stomach. It bothered me that, at my core, I was still nervous around people I didn’t know, eager to make a good impression and to be liked. Shouldn’t I have grown out of that by the time I picked up a college degree? Putting myself out there, taking risks, well… that meant being vulnerable to others’ judgment. It was easier, albeit less satisfying, to just be nice and do what was expected of me.

I’d been a people pleaser since I was a little girl, when the servers at restaurants realized my parents were Deaf and automatically turned to me for guidance. I’d force a smile and say that my mom wanted iced tea, unsweetened, with extra ice, and a water for my dad. My parents’ expectations were never for me to interpret, and they intervened immediately, always ready with a pen, paper, and patience, stressing that I didn’t have to get involved. I usually did, though; I didn’t know how not to when a grown-up was looking right at me, waiting for an answer.

My need to please sprang from a desire for things to run smoothly—to be the mediator and ensure that awkwardness was avoided whenever possible. I hated being the one with the power to provide clarity in situations that I would have preferred to step out of altogether: conversations with the doctor, the bank teller, even the friendly person in line at Target. What I hated more was seeing the awkwardness that ensued when I didn’t step in, when people inexplicably seemed embarrassed for not realizing my parents were Deaf.

Throughout childhood I learned that people who didn’t know much about Deaf culture often saw a problem before they saw a solution. It took me a long time to understand that my parents had been dealing with uncomfortable interactions their whole lives, yet it had never slowed them down. They quickly became practiced in the art of stepping forward, firm yet kind, to say Communicate with me, not my children. If it made someone feel awkward, well, that was part of life. I was still learning to let things go, to step out of my thoughts and not worry how I might be perceived by the wide world.

After college graduation, when I didn’t know what to do with my life, I chose travel because it seemed like the best way to shed the expectations that I carried with me. Having Deaf parents was only one small part of that; we all grow up in a gauzy shroud of shoulds, and I wanted to get rid of mine before I started buying into them: you should be a nice girl, you should follow a career track, you should crave success at all costs. To do that, I needed to go somewhere where no one knew anything about me. Where I could talk to strangers on my own terms, not because they had identified me as the easiest method of communication. The thought of doing it on my own scared me just enough to know it was the right decision. It helped that I was burning to see more of the world; after two tantalizing trips to France, I needed to see what else was out there.

In Galway, Ireland I moved in with a soft-spoken girl from Minnesota who was also on a working holiday visa, pushing the limits of her own comfort zone. When I wrote my best friend back home to update her on my living situation, she was relieved. We were worried that you would retreat into your shell, she said. That you wouldn’t talk to anyone. The comment hurt, mainly because it was true. I wasn’t yet far enough from the girl I had been to let her words roll off of me. My reticence to talk to strangers was ebbing away, but the memory was still there. By the time I moved to London three months later, I remembered her email and couldn’t believe those words had ever applied to me; I no longer had to give myself a pep talk before approaching someone in a hostel common room. I was hooked on this lifestyle, where I didn’t know what was coming next but trusted that I was ready to take it on.

I had to step away from who I was to move toward who I was going to be, who I am now. Shyness did not slough off overnight, but wore away slowly as I navigated accents, currencies, street names, and cultural differences. Making mistakes didn’t cause my stomach to churn anymore. I stopped dwelling on simple social gaffes and worrying about making a good impression. As I’ve traveled, I have learned to let things be a little bit awkward. Those early days of being asked to speak for my parents taught me what it was to feel boxed into a role I didn’t want, but it was my parents who showed me that what is expected of us is not who we have to be.

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