Her sign name looks like “Dimple,” and she is better at eating than any Thai person I know. The first night we met, she picked a seat near me on the ground and exuded a faint scent of flowers. It made me self-conscious. I myself smelled of chlorine: my clothes would not dry in the fan-stirred humidity of the house, and the warm, tropical air blew over me, lulling me into sleepy stillness after swimming. But they–all the Deaf I had just met–gathered around. They sat on the floor, signing with Berry. She was popular. Why would she sit by me?I tried to keep up. They crowded around low tables and discussed things that, looking back, I still cannot translate. I was too tired, jet-lagged and new to the stark realization that I was semi-permanently removed from the only world I had known. Less social than silently intrigued, I sat among them and absorbed rather than saw.
Berry seemed on the same wavelength of my mood and only occasionally gestured something to me, more in charades than in sign, knowing I could not understand. She did not try to boss me in customs, like when I accidentally stepped over the food with bare feet or did not Wai to an older Deaf person entering the room. But when I struggled with the Vietnamese rabbit food, trying to keep control of a rice paper wrap of green mango and sausage bits, Berry first watched me, looking tickled at my clumsiness. Then she pushed my hands away from the bowl. One by one little perfect wrap, she handed me food until I was full and looked incredulous when I filled up so quickly.
I later interviewed her for a sign language learning project and learned: she too had left her home. Not so far as 8,000 miles but far enough for a little Deaf girl who could not, at the time, even sign. The school was four hours from the Hill country where her tribe resides. But it was her only hope in learning any formal sign language.
“The girls at the school called me chubby. I guess I am,” she said that afternoon, stuffing her face with KFC. “But the Thai girls, they are too skinny. Food is good.”
She smiled at me then–you understand–and I knew we bonded on more levels than one.