On Passing as Someone I Am No Longer
“What?” I ask my partner, for the literally fourth time in a row. Not looking up from his video game, he patiently repeats his thought, still in a mumble. I can’t hear him over the white noise of the dishwasher humming and clinking away between the den and the kitchen, where I’m standing as I cut tomatoes for dinner. I can’t hear him over the tinnitus, a constant ringing in my right ear that is the only sound I’ve heard on that side in half a decade.
“Oh, okay,” I finally mumble myself, giving up on trying to understand him. He won’t notice, probably. He, like many of my friends, forget that I’m completely deaf on one side, and about halfway there on the other.
My Facebook feed is full of videos showing other Deaf people as they discuss the world and their experiences. Hearing mall Santas surprise Deaf children with ASL every December. A Deaf entrepreneur talks about what it took to build one of the largest catering companies in San Diego. I devour them all, subtitles turned on as I struggle to keep pace with unfamiliar signs and rapid ASL.
I want to be like them. I stand on the edges of the Deaf community, in part because I am late-deaf, and still only have managed to grasp elementary levels of ASL. I want to throw myself in and communicate, but how can you talk about your experiences when you don’t have the language to do so? I’m stuck in a cycle of needing to interact for practice and being unable to interact at the level I need.
I stand on the edges, also in part because I am hearing passing, and I struggle to feel like I’m not an imposter, an intruder, a liar. When the busboy dropped a tray of glasses in the kitchen, I was the only one who jumped at the sound, because I was the only one that heard. I found myself trying to explain my reaction and justify my deafness at the same time.
Passing as hearing is a blessing and a curse. I can read lips with an eerie degree of accuracy and I work hard to mask my confusion. I’m the master at requesting clarification in ways that don’t sound like I didn’t hear you the first time. I can talk on the phone. I can listen to music. I can speak with almost no indication that I can’t hear my own voice. I can sing. After all — I have spent two decades as a hearing person. As one of my exes put it, “You do it all so well, I forget you can’t hear me.”
There’s a certain amount of privilege in passing as hearing. Very rarely do I find myself the butt of jokes. Not too many people speak in a slow, exaggerated manner when I ask them to repeat themselves because I didn’t hear them. I pass under most people’s radar — which is exactly where I like to be.
But, as I said, passing is a curse. My ex’s above thought didn’t end there; it ended with, “That’s why I get so frustrated when you ask me to repeat myself.” That little comment came like a slap to the face. He was frustrated? What about me?! What about all the times I’d asked him to face me, to speak up, to leave the lights on so I could see him? What about the times I’d put in my hearing aids to ease his burden, enduring the screeches and tinny echoes they made? What about the hours I’d spent trying to show him signs to help us communicate?
I’d spent so much time trying to be hearing that I forgot how to be deaf. Now I feel like I’m stuck between worlds, unable to be a part of either one.
So, I pick up a cherry tomato, hefting it in my hand before bouncing it off the back of my partner’s head to get his attention. As he turns, I hold my hands in front of me, palms up and fingers splayed wide, shaking them side to side with emphatically raised brows — What?
This time, he points to the cat, pausing to think before uncertainly curling his fingers by his chin in a sign that means cute. Now I understand, and I wholeheartedly agree. Our cat is cute — but not nearly as cute as finally being heard.