Girl Talk

The Next Family

By: Suzanne Kamata

Among my fantasies upon learning that I would be the mother of a girl: We would wear matching dresses, as my own mom and I sometimes did. I would take her to ballet lessons and watch her twirl on the stage. I would teach her to read in English, and introduce her to Nancy Drew. We would celebrate Girl’s Day, arranging all those beautiful dolls in their bright kimonos together, as is the custom in her native Japan, but she would also be fully exposed to American culture. When she turned twelve, we would take a trip to Paris together, leaving her dad and twin brother behind in Tokushima. And once we got through the prickly days of her adolescence, during which even the way I chewed my food was uncool, we would sit on the edge of her bed and have long talks about her dreams of being an astronaut or a doctor and that boy she was in love with.

Then, Lilia and her brother Jio were born fourteen weeks premature. Lilia’s brain was injured and I realized that due to her cerebral palsy, we wouldn’t be going to ballet lessons after all. When I learned at six months that my daughter was deaf, I thought, “We won’t be able to engage in girl talk,” and I started to mourn.

I had imagined, from the time that I sat next to my babies’ Plexiglas isolettes, singing and speaking to them, that we would bond through language. I would share all of my childhood favorite books with them and I would write stories for them in English. They would grow up bilingual, speaking my language as fluently as their father’s Japanese. While their dad still doesn’t understand everything I say (and vice versa) even after twelve years of marriage, I would be able to speak my native tongue at normal speed and be perfectly understood. I saw my language as a gift I could give my children.

But Lilia, I knew, needed a language of her own, one that she could understand without strain. Even with a hearing aid and a cochlear implant, the spoken word would be a challenge for her. Lip reading is inexact: “bomb” and “mom” look the same. But she could learn sign language.

The idea of learning sign language via Japanese was daunting. To be honest, although I had achieved a degree of proficiency in Japanese, I was tired of struggling along in my second language. I’d studied French in college, when I was a lot younger. I’d read that language acquisition starts to get difficult after the age of 14, when the brain’s pathways become established. At 34, I couldn’t really see myself tackling a fourth language.

Still, to impose only English or even Japanese upon her seemed selfish. Like it or not, I would need to learn to sign, too.

Lilia’s first signed word was “milk” – a thumb tilted toward the mouth. She learned the signs for “ouch” and “dangerous.” She quickly acquired the signs for animals – dog, cat, rabbit. Her first sentence, executed in our backyard, was, “Where’s the frog?” It would be months before she was able to make the sign for “mother” – index finger brushing the cheek, followed by a fist with the pinky extended.

Meanwhile, I spoke English to Lilia and her brother. She learned to say “up” and “open” and “off” – words that are easy to read on the lips – but her teachers at the deaf school insisted that I use only Japanese, that it would be too difficult for her to learn more than one spoken language at a time.

I didn’t believe them. The brain is an amazing thing, after all. I’d read about a deaf girl in New York City who spoke and signed in both the English of her adopted country and the Russian of her immigrant parents. I also knew of a girl with a Japanese mother and American father who was learning both parents’ languages.

But Lilia’s father worked long hours and there was no one at home to reinforce the Japanese she learned at school, and I had to speak Japanese when I was in her classroom. I didn’t want to confuse her. I did my best to speak and write in Japanese with Lilia, and I continued to study Japanese Sign Language.

I have often thought that my life in Japan until the birth of my children was meant to prepare me for raising my deaf daughter. Like Lilia, I am often frustrated when others don’t understand what I’m trying to say. I understand only a percentage of the conversations that go on around me. Sometimes I’m just guessing, imagining.

By default, the one who understands her best is not her twin brother, with whom she shares a birth date and a bedroom; not her father, who like Lilia, is a native of Japan; not her grandmother who is hard-of-hearing and thus similarly disabled; but her foreign fish-out-of-water mother. I am the only one in our household, other than Lilia, who is learning JSL.

According to deaf school policy, mothers must accompany their children to kindergarten. In the days of the early intervention program, back when Lilia was one, two and three, my son Jio came along and picked up signs as well. The staff made it clear, however, that he wouldn’t be welcome further on. They’d tried to mix hearing and deaf children about twenty years ago, they told me, but it didn’t work out. While it may be the norm in England, for instance, the Tokushima School for the Deaf was finished with integration.

We sent our son to a private three-year kindergarten where he would master Japanese and learn to make swords out of rolled up paper. Lilia and I stayed at the deaf school. At home, Jio occasionally called upon me to translate for Lilia. Her dad sometimes muddled along with made-up signs that meant nothing to Lilia, unless I stepped in to correct him.

In her last year of kindergarten, Lilia started to write on her own. First, she learned to write her name and then, without being taught, her brother’s name. One day, she handed me a picture she’d drawn of me. She had written “mama” in Japanese next to it. I hugged her long and hard and tacked the picture on my bulletin board, next to my computer.

Now she is in the third grade. She can read and write more kanji than I can. I am thrilled by the progress she has made, but I also worry that I won’t be able to keep up with her. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to need a translator to communicate deeply with my own daughter.

But I know that she has a lot to say, and that she is eager to be understood. Sometimes I find that she has tried to copy words from some of the many English books we have strewn around the house. She pulls my novels from the bookshelves and lugs them around in her Pooh backpack. Without being taught, she has learned to write her own name in English, as well as my name and her brother’s. She draws pictures and teaches me and others sign language. She dances when she’s happy. I’m starting to have faith that one way or another, we will find the words we need to say what we have to say to each other.

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Suzanne Kamata is the author of a novel, Losing Kei (Leapfrog Press, 2008) and editor of three anthologies including Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs (Beacon Press, May 2008) and Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering (Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing, 2009). For more information, please visit her website at http://www.suzannekamata.com.

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