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International Volunteer Work: Considerations entering a community overseas as a Deaf woman

Norma discusses considerations entering a community overseas as a Deaf woman, as a Deaf person and then when there, how to work well with people you are there to assist.
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[DESCRIPTION: A Latina female with dark brown hair, glasses, olive skin sits facing the camera and signs the following paragraphs.]

Hello I’m Norma.

Coming up, you will watch my presentation telling you about my experiences from when I was in the Peace Corps, volunteering in the country of Kenya. I share several situations, examples, and experiences during that specific time during my Peace Corps service. Even though these were from a specific time and a specific country, they can apply to any country in the world. Some of my experiences can apply to anyone in the world, those who are working out in the field. I hope you enjoy watching my presentation.

Hello. I am Norma Moran. I am a returned Peace Corps Volunteer. The Peace Corps is a volunteer program run by the federal U.S. government. Their main goal is to promote world peace and friendship through 3 subgoals: 1) To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women, 2) To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, and the final goal is to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

The Peace Corps is service-oriented which requires all volunteers to immerse in a community abroad and work with their local community members. By the way, the returned designation signifies a volunteer who has completed the entire duration of their service, be it two years or more.

I am here today to discuss the important points that a Deaf person and a woman need to consider while preparing to work overseas. Intersectionality is a key concept that is integral and will inform this discussion. I am Deaf. I am a woman. I am a Person of Color. I am a woman with dark hair, dark eyes, and olive/tan skin that resemble more than half of the world’s population which leave others with ambiguous racial/ethnic interpretations of me.

Cultural Understanding and Sensitivity: The number one thing to know is, Do not be afraid to ask questions.

It is important to remember that we are a country’s guest, and we do not get to decide our position in the house. We do not come in marching with orders. We come in and slide to sit at their table without much fanfare. Ideally, we would have a significant amount of time for training prior to doing the work in the community. If you know your destination, it is recommended to do some research beforehand. The main key is to have an open mind and cultural adaptability because in the same country, customs/practices can vary from town to town, city to city, and/or region to region. It is really important for us to master the skill of adaptability while being culturally sensitive. Being willing to questions (in a gentle manner of course) is part of cultural adaptability. Now, I will share a story about Asians in Kenya. For my training, I lived with a homestay/host family on the rural outskirts of a bustling city and commuted to a deaf school in the heart of the city. My homestay family was teachers at a local high school so the father loved to chat with me via writing. In the beginning, he was intrigued by my looks and remarked that I looked like an Asian. To this, I politely thanked him and said no more on the subject. He knew my commute route to the deaf school and told me that I will see many Asians around that neighborhood. I was puzzled but put on my game face. For the next few days, I was eagle-eyed while walking to/from school. I did not see any Asians but I did see Indians. I told the father that I did not see Asians, and he was perplexed. I paused while reflecting that we were right in the middle of a classic cultural misunderstanding but what? Gingerly, I then asked him what did he mean by Asians? He then went on describing Indians’ outfits! Oh! We were able then to figure out that the Indians/people from India that I saw were indeed Asians. In Kenya, the word “Asian” is used instead of “Indian” to describe a person from India/of Indian heritage. I asked how he would describe people from Asia such as China, Japan, Korea, etc. He loftily replied, China! It was a struggle switching my vocabulary and thinking around but it was Kenya. This is just an example of how gentle questioning can help in clarifying up any misunderstanding and improving communication and relationship with local community members. It was really a challenging experience related to cultural understanding and awareness.

A very challenging experience related to cultural understanding and awareness came up within my first month in Kenya. The deaf school where I did my training practiced corporal discipline on students. The first time I witnessed such an incident, I walked away and felt sick. Fortunately, I was able to process my feelings with Peace Corps staff and Deaf KSL instructors. Honesty, authenticity, and a willingness to explain my distraughtness assisted in making them see why I was upset. They explained it was part of their culture. I cannot change that. They worked with me in developing coping strategies in case I again witness corporal discipline. Communicating with your in-country peers is really the key here to help cross-cultural understanding.

As I mentioned, I am a person of color (POC). I am a Latina and from El Salvador. However, my identity in Kenya was reduced to a simple dimension of “mzungu” (foreigner, white person) or an Asian. I attempted to explain that I was a Latina, not a white person, and that my culture differed from the mainstreamed white U.S. society. My other cultural experiences were dismissed. They said you are a white person nonetheless and I had to accept their perspective. The only roadway I was able to gain was the fact that I was comfortable with hand washing my clothes, I explained that I did this in Mexico. They recognized that but everything else, they still thought of me as a white person. However, I did struggle with this loss of my identity. But, I understood that their worldview differed greatly from mine, and it can take time for changes to shift their worldview. It’s important to be patient and understanding of that.

As I am Deaf, I almost automatically share an affinity with the Deaf communities in other countries despite our different backgrounds. We share similar struggles in a hearing world but the struggles differ greatly on various levels. However, it is very essential that one remains cognizant that using ASL in another country is a form of linguistic imperialism and can lead to negative effects on a country’s sign language/s and their deaf culture. It can impact their Deaf culture and Deaf pride. Because I was viewed as a woman with a soft heart, I felt pressured by the community to teach ASL or import ASL resources. Fortunately, I had competent Deaf KSL instructions who trained me in Kenyan Sign Language (KSL), and they also shared vital background information on KSL. I was able to draw on this new knowledge and share with other Deaf Kenyans who ironically/heartbreakingly may not have the same access. So I was happy to pass on this knowledge back to the community. If you do not expect any language training at your arrival, I recommend you to start research online as long as you remember the caveat that information online is not always accurate. The key for you is to socialize and interact with the local Deaf community for a fully immersive experience in learning their sign language. The immersion will also educate you on their deaf culture and the history behind their sign language. Another key factor for you – be ready for cultural misunderstandings to happen! And to smile when they do. Make that into a learning or a teaching moment.

So, gender expectations… As a young woman in the early 2000s, I was very alert to society’s expectations for other young women in the country. Prior to my arrival in Kenya, I was repeatedly told to pack long skirts. As much as I loathed wearing skirts or dresses, I put aside my feelings and followed the cultural expectation for women. I was posted to a small rural town where female villagers wore skirts. Female teachers at the deaf school wore skirts. Female workers tilled the fields in their skirts. Female cooks cooked in their skirts. I wore skirts while riding bicycles because Kenyan women did. I wore skirts while it was cold and rainy because Kenyan women did. Whenever I traveled to a nearby city, I wore pants but felt self-conscious for standing out. I felt like I was not fitting in their culture. It was only when I went to the capital, Nairobi, that I felt okay with wearing pants, all other times I wore skirts. I recently learned that in 2019, in Kenya, this cultural expectation may be easing a bit. Nonetheless, it is essential to know and follow the local clothing custom and to remember villages/towns differ from bigger urban areas.

Another example of gender expectation challenge I had was that I was a young woman, and I did not have children. In society’s eyes, thus I was viewed as a girl. Sometimes, I was treated like such. My protests and claims of adult responsibilities experienced back home in the U.S. were easily dismissed, and I was firmly a girl. Just because I have not given birth, I was a girl. 5-6 years later when I visited Kenya with my daughter, I was finally called a woman and a mama. I had to work at feeling not offended or slighted by this because it was the prevailing societal view of women in general. It was not personal. That was an age and a gender expectation. I had the luxury of knowing that it was not true of me and could always escape this label while young Kenyan women could not.

Another consideration to have; Age. I just shared a story on my being viewed as a girl. Also at another time, I observed some things when I worked at a deaf school. I noticed older teachers’ resistance to my ideas, feedback, and activities. I have learned not to take it personally because of our age difference. They have not experienced a younger teacher almost “telling” them what to do. Younger teachers respect their elders. What helped my case is I identified an older teacher who seemed sympathetic to my goals and enlisted them in my plans along with providing an opportunity for feedback. That way, we were able to build a partnership. The older teacher then was able to help me to get other older teachers to “buy in”. For example, I wanted to paint the KSL alphabet in the prekindergarten classroom but the teacher was not receptive to the idea. I had already successfully lobbied the teacher in the nursery class to allow my older student, a talented artist, to paint the alphabet. So I asked the nursery teacher to chat with the prekindergarten teacher about the importance of KSL alphabet for the students. The nursery teacher indeed went ahead and spoke with the prekindergarten teacher. The result was that I got the preK classroom painted! It is always important to keep age consideration in the back of your mind while planning your work. Observe the traditional relationships between the older and younger and follow the cues from your observations. What you see, you can then build on it. Always observe before jumping in.

Being aware of time is another important factor in surviving working abroad and in having successful work experience. Due to transportation and other factors, time can be a fluid concept. For example, a meeting scheduled for 8 am can start at 1 pm. The key for me was to engage my community members in gentle questioning and cultural exchange so I was able to understand and learn this. I still experienced moments of frustrations when things did not happen as planned. For example, many teachers at my rural deaf school had their own farm/garden back home, and they had to till their fields or harvest. This was a priority for them than attending a meeting at 8 am. Other teachers had to travel far to their village for a weekend event, and transportation was not easily available. So, they missed the 8 am meeting. Their priorities were different. Understanding different possibilities beyond our human control helped a bit and realize that time is always a fluid concept.

Social customs also impact timing. In Kenya, it was usual to see a tea break at mid-day and mid-afternoon, at about 10am and 2pm. So, this had an impact on different activities and the timing.

As a Deaf female teacher, I felt constrained by prevailing societal views. At the same time, I felt free as I was an outsider, and I was not always expect to follow the cultural norms. It was very contradictory. That word, contradiction was everywhere throughout my service. Hearing teachers were genuinely astonished by my educational degrees. They were shocked I could drive. They also lamented the fact that I left behind my family in the U.S. In Kenya, family is highly treasured, and they could not fathom the thought of a Deaf daughter leaving her family and traveling 9,400 miles alone. It is interesting because they also dismissed this and viewed me as a simple girl. So contradictory again, as I mentioned, contradictory. Many of the hearing, teachers did not think it was possible for a deaf teacher to become the principal of a school. There was one deaf teacher who was officially certified by the government, meaning a college degree in deaf education. The rest of the six deaf adults were not a teacher, and they were treated accordingly, looked down upon as a lesser. It was a barrier for me to handle the other teachers’ attitudes. However, I think because of my presence, some hearing teachers adjusted their perspective of what the Deaf can do. Existing cultural norms are slower to absorb new ideas. On one hand, I can say they started to realize more potential of the Deaf children. On another hand, they did not immediately alter their teaching methods to maximize their Deaf students’ potential.

My mere presence on their ground did challenge their preexisting notions, and I have to take this as an output of the Peace Corps’ goal. As for the Deaf community at my deaf school, I was instantly welcomed. They were thrilled to have me there as I was the first Deaf volunteer posted there. They had a hearing British volunteer for 5 years so it was a giant leap for them, from a hearing British volunteer to a deaf American volunteer. They already understood the British volunteer and expected me to be the same as that volunteer. Actually no, it was completely different. My being a Deaf American was totally opposite of what the hearing Briton experienced. As I mentioned, I almost automatically had an affinity with the Deaf communities overseas. This came true at my school. For example, I let younger children socialize in my house while it was not the case with the other volunteer. It was a huge Deaf cultural difference. We were able to bond instantly over many things that the Deaf experience all over the world. The concept of Deaf-Same can be found all over the world which is why the Deaf from different countries can effectively communicate in less than 5 minutes. It’s not the same in the hearing community.

Being Deaf brings a unique set of skills that can assist you in your international work. We have the comfort with being seen as an outsider and as a spectacle due to our signing. I’m already used to it from U.S.A and now being in another country, it was the same thing. Deaf volunteers and/or workers overseas literally symbolize the value of educating deaf children and working with deaf community members. Our presence overseas solely challenges the accepted notions of what the deaf can do. Through our work overseas, we as Deaf volunteers and/or workers are the walking proof that Deaf children can learn and Deaf adults can lead. Let’s use our presence to create connections and building blocks for success. When we leave, they are still there.

Norma Morán obtained her Bachelor of Science degree from Rochester Institute of Technology and Master of Arts degree from American University (Washington, D.C.). Her career spans from the Peace Corps (Kenya) to the National Institutes of Health (Maryland) to Gallaudet University (Washington, D.C.) to Linguabee (virtual).

During her time at Gallaudet, in addition to her job’s responsibilities, Norma also developed and taught three undergraduate courses with a multicultural/global lens. Additionally, she established and conducted cross-cultural training sessions for students who had an international internship. In 2018, Norma co-authored a toolkit for the Global Reading Network and USAID, “Universal Design for Learning to Help All Children Read: Promoting Literacy for Learners with Disabilities.” Norma has given numerous presentations for a wide variety of organizations and institutions.

Norma discusses considerations entering a community overseas as a Deaf woman, as a Deaf person and then when there, how to work well with people you are there to assist.

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