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Erin Moriarty Harrelson: Documenting the Deaf Experience in Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia–“She can’t talk?” As I picked through the mountains of paintings at a booth in the hot, claustrophobia-inducing warren of merchandise that is the Russian Market in Phnom Penh, I noticed in my peripheral vision that the vendor, a young Cambodian woman, was looking at me with a puzzled expression. Recognizing the look...

Phnom Penh, Cambodia–“She can’t talk?”

As I picked through the mountains of paintings at a booth in the hot, claustrophobia-inducing warren of merchandise that is the Russian Market in Phnom Penh, I noticed in my peripheral vision that the vendor, a young Cambodian woman, was looking at me with a puzzled expression. Recognizing the look on her face, I thought to myself, wow, the sentiment of, “I just said something but she’s not looking at me or responding appropriately,” just may be universal…

I looked up from the pile of white cloth, stretched over 4×4 wood frames, slashed by orange and black brush strokes denoting repetitive scenes of monks in saffron robes on elephants, monks with umbrellas, and finally, a gaggle of monks in a tuk-tuk. I glanced over at Jeff, an American Sign Language interpreter who is in Phnom Penh from Washington, D.C. to interpret for my orientation at the U.S. Embassy and introductory meetings with the assorted organizations working with deaf people in Cambodia.

Jeff signed to me, “She just asked me if you talk…”

With a wry smile, I nodded and made a “go-ahead” gesture for Jeff to tell my story—I am a deaf researcher visiting Cambodia as a Fulbright-National Geographic fellow to collect ethnographic data on the situation of deaf Cambodians.

Deaf Speak for Themselves

Jeff looked to me for permission before explaining to the vendor that I was deaf because it is an important tenet of an ASL [American Sign Language] interpreter’s code of conduct to not speak for the deaf person without their permission. This is partly because of confidentiality and partly because to do so would take power away from the deaf person to speak for themselves.

As Jeff briefly explained to the vendor that indeed, I did not speak nor did I hear, I continued to negotiate with the vendor’s brother for a painting of a monk on an elephant for my new apartment. The man and I went back and forth, holding up fingers in various configurations, shaking heads, then finally, nodding with mutual smiles after we arrived at an agreement we were both satisfied with.

Clutching our newly acquired paintings, Jeff and I made our way out of the Russian Market, our conversation unfolding in spurts as our ability to see and sign to each other expanded and contracted according to the narrowness of the aisles and the height of the stacks of cloth bags, colorful folded kramas and silk scarves. Jeff explained that the vendor had specifically asked about my ability to speak as opposed to hearing, an observation that had escaped me on my previous visits to Cambodia, primarily because I had always navigated Cambodian life alone or with deaf Cambodians.

As the next few days of meetings and encounters unfolded, the question “she can’t speak?” continued to crop up. The initial question was often followed by comments such as, “Ma’am is in Cambodia alone?” “Where is her family?” and “Ma’am is a researcher?”

Khmer Rouge Survivor

In an especially memorable moment, I had the great privilege to meet Youk Chhang, Executive Director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) and a survivor of the Khmer Rouge who was nominated by John Kerry as one of the 2007 Time 100. I had asked to interview him after seeing an article in the Phnom Penh Post that he had a deaf sister who also survived the Khmer Rouge. A part of my project is to document the deaf experience before and during the genocide.

In my emails to Youk, I hadn’t mentioned that I was deaf or that I would be bringing an ASL interpreter to interpret for us. Jeff and I walked into Youk’s office on the third floor of a gated villa across from the Independence Monument on Sihanouk Boulevard, which is beautifully decorated with stacks of books, black and white photos and intricate Khmer wooden carvings. I introduced myself, explaining that Jeff was there to interpret our meeting. Youk looked at me and back at Jeff and said in surprise, “I’ve never met a deaf researcher! How wonderful!”

After his momentary surprise, Youk welcomed us with grace and warmth and we settled in for a long conversation about his work at DC-Cam and his deaf sister. Youk explained that he had initially been surprised because of the situation of deaf people in Cambodia, especially his sister. His sister never learned a national sign language nor did she go to school.

Youk’s sister’s experience is not atypical. Efforts to provide deaf people with formal schooling and education began as NGOs flooded into Cambodia after the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) period. In 1997 Krousar Thmey established the first K-12 schools for deaf people and Deaf Development Programme began developing a local sign language, as well as providing basic education. The work continues today as Deaf Development Programme and Krousar Thmey, the two major NGOs working with deaf people in Cambodia, work on the documentation of a nationally recognized sign language—Cambodian Sign Language.

“Simply Being Here” has Impact

Youk’s excitement at meeting a deaf researcher and his unequivocal support for this project resonates with me, especially as I meet more and more people at various NGOs and government ministries who tell me about their need for data on the situation of deaf people in Cambodia to support their work. It is not only the observations of the influential people in the non-government and government sectors in Cambodia that make me realize the impact I have by simply being here.

It is also the bashful curiosity expressed by the woman who poured my coffee and refilled my glass of water. Jeff told me that after I left the table after our breakfast meeting, she asked him, “Can ma’am talk?” After Jeff explained that I can’t hear and don’t speak, the woman said, “Ma’am travels so far from home by herself! She is strong. In Cambodia, deaf people stay home with family and do nothing. No education or work.”

Erin Moriarty Harrelson, a PhD candidate in anthropology at American University, is one of five grantees selected from among 864 applicants for a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, which is the first of its kind. Moriarty Harrelson will travel throughout Cambodia for nine months, exploring the emergence of a post-Khmer Rouge deaf culture. She herself is deaf and will use video, text, photographs, maps, and drawings to document the lives of deaf Cambodians as they encounter each other for the first time and learn Cambodian Sign Language—a language that is still being developed and documented. Follow Erin on Instagram @ErinMHarrelson and on Twitter @ErinMoriartyH.

The first five Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellows, clockwise from upper left: Ann Chen, Daniel Koehler, Erin Moriarty Harrelson, Michael Waldrep, and Mimi Onuoha. Photographs courtesy of U.S. Department of State.
The first five Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellows, clockwise from upper left: Ann Chen, Daniel Koehler, Erin Moriarty Harrelson, Michael Waldrep, and Mimi Onuoha. Photographs courtesy of U.S. Department of State.

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Meet the Author

Erin Moriarty Harrelson
Erin Moriarty Harrelson, a PhD candidate in anthropology at American University, is one of five grantees selected from among 864 applicants for a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, which is the first of its kind. Moriarty Harrelson will travel throughout Cambodia for nine months, exploring the emergence of a post-Khmer Rouge deaf culture. She herself is deaf and will use video, text, photographs, maps, and drawings to document the lives of deaf Cambodians as they encounter each other for the first time and learn Cambodian Sign Language—a language that is still being developed and documented.