I’d Rather Be a Cyborg…: The Unexpected Inter-sectional Feminism of Losing My Hearing

20170823_143656 (1)My hearing has never been good. Normal hearing is something I’ve had to work to maintain all my life with surgeries and procedures in doctors’ offices. Over time, I’ve progressed to having irretrievable below-normal hearing in the upper frequencies on my left side. I am hard of hearing, and as I age I will only become more so.

Knowing this, accepting it about myself is important in situations where faking normal hearing could cause problems, like when I’m standing in a noisy airport security line, talking to an officer, a fellow short-lady, through a pane of glass taller than both of us. Instead of gambling, guessing what she wants, I say, “Sorry, I’m hard of hearing,” explaining that I can’t meet her halfway and she needs to bear more of the burden of communication than she’s used to—which really just means she has to stop being verbally lazy and ask me about the yoghurt I forgot in my bag in a louder, clearer voice. The upper frequencies–voices of women and children–are less heard, and until they are, they need to be louder. The sexism built into my language tells me to call voices like these “shrill,” a word meant to shame people into silence, but a word which, for people like me, simply means “audible.”

My deaf sister-in-law says I need to stop introducing my condition with “Sorry…” Wheelchair users aren’t expected to stare down flights of stairs and tell anyone they’re sorry. I get it, and I’m working on it. I’ve even realized why I’ve always suffered a little stab of anger whenever someone doesn’t hear me and lets me know by saying, “Sorry.” The implication that anyone needs to apologize for not hearing—or not seeing or not walking—is ableist and backward. The idea that intruding on able-bodied privilege with requests that accommodations be made to social and physical structures that dismiss and deny special needs is something that demands an apology–I hate it. I do feel sorrow for the decline in my hearing. But I’m not responsible for it. No one owes anyone else a normal level of natural ability in anything, including hearing.

Anyways…

I noticed the decline in my hearing once I switched from working at home to studying in a large, crowded university—especially when my studies are in a new language where the skills and strategies I use in English to guess and gloss over what I don’t hear can’t be applied. While my Chinese reading and writing is quite good for someone at my level, my ability to understand what I’m listening to is bad. By the end of the month I spent living in China this summer, I realized that, some of the time, when I was giving my stock reply of “I can’t understand what you’re saying” what I really meant was “I can’t hear what you’re saying.” Coming home to my English-speaking family, I saw for the first time how much trouble I was having receiving all kinds of messages, including ones in my native language.

The audiology clinic asked me to bring an able-bodied handler with me to my hearing test, but I rebelled and came alone. The appointment was a sad trip back in time to when I was seven years old and facing my below-average hearing for the first time. Strangely enough the list of words I had to repeat in the soundproof booth hadn’t changed in all that time. The list was an odd, old-fashioned collection—and old-fashioned means sexist and Anglo-centric. The words were meant to be recognizable to elderly men. “Whitewash, inkwell, cowboy, baseball.” I asked, “Do you have lists in any languages other than English?” No, of course they didn’t. English was confounding my test results. Once I realized the list of words was taken from Tom Sawyer, once I knew I was amassing a set with a theme, I could guess them even more easily than usual.

I’ve never worn eyeglasses, and my childhood surgeries completely extinguished any interest in getting my ears pierced so I’m just now learning to tolerate a foreign object against my ear. My hearing aid penetrates much further into my head than I expected. It’s an infiltration. “I’m a cyborg,” I told the technician–not a word from the clinic’s list.

Back at our house, with my new circuitry, my youngest son was relieved I hadn’t come back with a hole drilled in my skull, and my oldest son congratulated me on my “augmented reality.” I smirked. “You mean, like your glasses?” That’s all a hearing aid should be for someone outside of Deaf culture who comes to be hard of hearing later in life. It’s eyeglasses for the ears, the restoration of a baseline. Cyborg-me knows it but does not know how to believe it yet, and sits by herself flexing her jaw, tipping the electronic node against the inside of her post-human head.

Thirteen Things That Are Better In China

chinashoes

My China Look

I am back in Canada, back to the ridiculous standard of living I enjoy in what is the best of all nations on this planet. Don’t bother to argue. Canada and I are in a honeymoon phase right now and I won’t be dissuaded.

For the month of July 2017, I lived in northeast China, studying at a university in the little-known city of Harbin, which is twice the size of the biggest city in Canada. By now, my experiences with China and Chinese are bigger than a single blog-post or Instagram feed. They are more like a book–nuanced and complex. When I look at the Instagram feed (find it at jennylquist) I used to curate some what I encountered on my latest trip to China, I’m afraid the overall impression might be a bit too negative, too “other.”

So in the spirit of fairness, positivity, and unity, I bring you a list of things about China that are actually better than what we have here in the West.

  • Hailing Waiters – The relationships Western diners have with their servers—it’s weird. It’s a complicated game where servers try to guess and perfectly time diners’ needs while diners try to stiffly and silently catch their eyes, getting huffier and huffier when things aren’t perfect, everyone wondering what it might all mean for the fraught practice of tipping at the end of the night. In China, when a diner needs something, she waves and calls out. The server expects it and doesn’t get worried or offended by it. The communication is direct, uncomplicated, and effective. It’s better.
  • Over-dressing – Fancy dresses, shoes, and accessories are worn in China because they are fun and beautiful–no other justification needed. Where I was staying, this seemed to be more common for women than it was for men (head to South Korea for guys in suits for no special reason). Fancy dressing is not something Chinese women age out of either. In fact, the frilliest dresses on the street are worn by auntie-aged ladies. No one in China seems to have any idea how old I am and when I tried on one of these dresses in a store—a silk shift dress for $20–the clerk asked if I was going to wear this auntie dress myself. 当然自己穿!I bought a pair of pointy-toed gold shoes to go with it.
  • Bathroom Mysteries – Not since I last toilet-trained someone have I talked as freely about bathroom issues as I did in China. It really is strange that in the West the perfectly normal, sometimes medically important movements of toilet fluids are still taboo. Being able to talk about it openly is a more genuinely human way to behave. “I’ll be downstairs right after I finish pooping,” a 20-year-old man texted me. Sure, fair enough.
  • Love Songs – The last hour of formal Chinese instruction I had at the Harbin Institute of Technology was spent learning love songs to sing at the end of semester concert for our classmates. They were overwrought and awesome—all about crying and being wrong and loving too much. During our long, long day of airport delays on the way home, my traveling companion and I amused ourselves singing what we remembered of them, using them as an emotional safety valve for a harrowing, exhausting day.
  • Proper Use of Air Conditioning – In the West, especially in the hottest parts of America, air conditioning is used to transform interior spaces into refrigerator units. It wastes an obscene amount of energy and can lead to people stuck indoors dressing up in layers of warm clothing to counteract the air conditioning. In China, air conditioning is meant to make interior spaces not cold but merely warm. They’re usually set around 25 degrees Celsius—the temperature of a pleasant summer day–rather than at 19 degrees Celsius—the temperature of a colossal Target store in Phoenix.
  • Russia – When traveling in Asia (and in Europe, where my son lives) it’s remarkable to realize how pervasive the Russian language and Russian people are in the countries bordering their own. In Beijing and in the north, people trying to guess my nationality usually guessed Russian first. An elite Russian high school student can function in Russian, English, and often another language such as, yes, Chinese. So…yeah.
  • Kitchen in the Front, Party in the Back – It’s not uncommon for a Chinese restaurant’s dining room to be in the back of the building, meaning diners get to walk through and see all the ugly truths of the kitchens where their food is prepared. If there’s an overflowing garbage can covered in flies, or a live turtle living in a plastic box right on the food prep space, we’re going to know about it and have no one but ourselves to blame for the astounding bathroom story we’ll wind up with later.
  • Public Transportation – In my home town, riding the lacklustre subway costs just under $4. In north east China, riding the clean, flashy subway cost about 20 cents.
  • The Welcome Applause – In China, applause comes at the beginning of the performance to get the performers psyched up and feeling welcome. There’s no daunting, expectant silence as they take the stage.
  • Drinks in Bags – Instead of selling drinks to-go in tippy cardboard drink trays, Chinese cafes hand them out in slender plastic bags with handles. We can carry more than one without spilling or getting wet from the condensation on the sides of the cup. I hereby call out the cardboard drink tray cartel that is holding this back in the West.
  • Scale – In the West, at five foot one inch tall (about 155cm) my height is that of a child in the sixth grade. In China, I’m fairly normal. I sail right under low hanging staircases and doorways, and I can always find shoes in my size. Back home, many shoe stores don’t even order merchandise in my size.
  • Talking to Strangers – Homes tend to be small in China so cities are planned with shared outdoor living spaces where people come together to sit, talk, eat, play, sing, and dance. This fosters a culture where people accept the nearness of strangers as part of normal private life. They initiate conversations, stare, scold, speak their minds even on personal topics. The look of my transparent Irish skin provoked a lot of advice from strangers on how to take better care of my body. It was invasive and strange but I was touched by it. I felt loved and important when I heard it. I felt like I was being allowed to become part of something.

The reason I went to China was to learn, especially to learn its language. I don’t think one language can be better than another but what I love about Chinese is how different it is from every other language I know anything about. Chinese isn’t just a new language to me, it’s a new mental faculty–one that also exists in the minds of a billion other people. After all these little details, what, in the end, is better in China than in the West? I am. I am more human for having been there and I hope I have brought that home with me to my family, friends, and country-people. Not everyone’s journey will pass through China—or anyplace in particular–to make them who they need to be. But mine does, and I am so grateful.