Toxic talk: Trying to lip read in China

Woman wearing a face mask in China Image copyright Getty Images

There are many challenges to overcome when moving to another country. Laura Gillhespy reveals the sometimes unexpected hurdles she faced as a law intern with a hearing impairment when she moved to China's capital, Beijing.

It is common amongst expats to say "bad China day" when everything seems to be going wrong - like high pollution, crowded public transport and admitting defeat when you are unable to communicate - but everyday challenges are often amplified when you have a disability.

I have a type of hearing loss which makes it difficult to hear high frequency tones, and rely on hearing aids and lip-reading to communicate. That system was tested when I moved to Beijing.

My mother was initially shocked when I announced I was applying for opportunities overseas. I had never previously expressed a desire to travel, but during my law degree I became interested in international law and applied for an internship with the British Council and CRCC, an organisation which supports internships, to work on employment regulations.

Image copyright Laura Gillhespy
Image caption Laura Gillhespy on the Great Wall of China

I was quietly worried about being so far away from my support network and meeting many strangers of different nationalities and accents. But thrust into busy Beijing life I was amazed how independent I became, exploring the city and country alike. My major concerns were quickly quashed but other, unanticipated, challenges arose.

Before leaving for Asia I had seen pictures of people in front of a dimmed Tiananmen Square wearing face masks to protect themselves against pollution. It had never occurred to me that this would prevent me from seeing people's lips moving.

Most days, the city's pollution levels would be high and the majority of people chose to wear a mask to save them breathing in toxic fumes. It meant I had to ask people to remove their masks if they wanted to talk with me, which was often initially met with looks of confusion.

Language is of course a barrier many expats face. For natives with a hearing impairment China has a well-established sign language system, but much like Chinese, it was unfamiliar to me and vastly different to British Sign Language.

The internship helpfully provided me with Mandarin lessons, although I had to establish my own technique to learn the language. Among other things I wrote down words and pronunciations while drawing comparisons with English words which sounded similar so I could make the correct shapes with my mouth.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A mother poses with her baby in Tiananmen Square

An additional challenge is that in Chinese the same word can have several meanings denoted by four tones - up, down, flat or dipping the sound - which I can't hear so I really have to concentrate on the context surrounding the word.

During our weekly sessions my teacher confessed she had been apprehensive about having me as a pupil saying: "You are the first person with a disability I have met."

I discovered her response was not unusual and found it's hard for some Chinese people to accept an invisible disability. Maybe this is because many disabled people are educated separately, so those at mainstream schools may have little or no contact with someone with disabilities and remain uncertain or shy about interacting with them.

In the workplace there have been occasions when I needed to explain away what could be perceived as inappropriate questions from colleagues who were curious but ill-informed about my hearing loss, bringing to light some cultural differences.

One woman covered her mouth to "test" me because she didn't believe lip-reading existed while others used the old fashioned phrase "deaf and dumb" or exclaimed in surprise "but you can hear me!" when I talked about my condition - having presumed that if I couldn't hear, I couldn't speak.

People in Beijing are curious and very open about what they feel able to ask me, but sometimes there are intrusive queries to negotiate too: "Why are you handicapped?" "Did something go wrong with your mum's pregnancy?" Sometimes they would get the terminology wrong and call me "the disability" as opposed to an individual with a disability.

I met some deaf Chinese people who work for One Plus One, an agency which helps people with disabilities find work.

Image copyright Laura Gillhespy
Image caption Visiting Beijing Huiling Intellectual Disability Center

Some employees told me they feel excluded from their communities and one deaf man said he "lives in a quiet and silent world, oblivious to most of the things that are going on around him". He loves playing video games where he says he doesn't have to rely on hearing to take part.

I realised quite quickly that dealing with a disability in the UK was easier than in China. I like to think I wouldn't be discriminated against in the workplace or held back in a career. In my internship, I've been given the support I need, including using email instead of telephones. Not everyone is so fortunate.

I have heard that some companies in China do not want to make allowances for those with disabilities because they are seen as less efficient.

The Chinese government has created an incentive for disabled people to be encouraged into the workplace by charging higher taxes on companies that don't meet quotas, but I have also heard rumours that some companies will hire someone to meet the quota, then ask them to stay at home.

Despite the challenges, moving to China has made such a positive impact on me that I am still here, many months after my initial internship ended, and I have ambitions of becoming an international lawyer.

Image copyright Laura Gillhespy
Image caption A trip to Nankai University to meet some international students there

Travelling alone to the other side of the world has done wonders for my confidence and the transition was much smoother than I imagined. The cultural differences have made me more vocal about my disability and confident about highlighting it to strangers.

Back in the UK I used to let other people speak for me at the bank or in restaurants to avoid someone having to repeat themselves. I used to dread being in the back of a taxi when the driver wanted to talk. I would perch on the seat straining to hear or catch a glimpse of their lips. In future, I will have the confidence to state I have a disability to avoid half-guessing conversations.

Life in China is amazing and my disability does not prevent me living a positive life. There is so much to see and explore and any challenge I face has been counteracted by how willing people are to help and learn about disabilities. China as a country is quickly adapting to promote diversity and inclusion.

Some accessibility issues remain - I am yet to find a loop system which will sync with my hearing aids, but I'll put those odd instances down to "bad China days". They happen, and maybe even more so with a disability.

My advice for anyone planning to move abroad, disabled or otherwise, would be to take frustrating days in your stride, try your best to absorb the cultural differences and turn it into a positive, resilience-building exercise.

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