KAMPOT, Cambodia– With the faded blue wooden shutters thrown open, I sat at the desk in my sunlit, whitewashed room in a French colonial building on a quiet side street, scrolling through photographs on my laptop. As a gentle breeze from the ceiling fan curled over my bare feet, my day unfolded on the screen in captured moments. I clicked the trackpad, staring at the people I photographed, the changing expressions of fear, confusion, pride, and finally, hope, unmistakable on their faces.
These photographs were from the first day of the 2015 school year for a new cohort of deaf adult learners, some who are learning Cambodian Sign Language for the first time. For some of them, it is also the first time they have been in a classroom. This was one of the very few opportunities I had during fieldwork to observe contexts in which it was possible that some of the people involved would be seeing sign language for the first time. On several occasions on that day, I had to turn from the scene and walk, glassy-eyed, to the back of the room where I ostensibly examined a laminated map of Cambodia on the wall, blinking away my tears.
During the welcoming ceremony, the program manager at Deaf Development Programme (DDP) made an eloquent speech in which he explained to the assembled parents, deaf students and the de rigueur assortment of local officials seated on a raised dais that this was an opportunity for deaf people to learn like hearing people. Unexpectedly, he pointed me out to the assembled parents, explaining that I was visiting Cambodia from the United States of America to do research for my dissertation. Rithy told these parents, most who were rice farmers from a rural area about two hours northeast of Kampot, that I was in university and would become a doctor next year. He pointedly told them that I was deaf and that in the United States, deaf people could go to university and while this isn’t commonplace in Cambodia yet, it would be someday.
I felt uncomfortable about being singled out as an example for Cambodians, given my privileged position as a white citizen of the United States, but when I glanced over at one of the fathers seated in the back of the room, I was struck by his reaction. A tall, imposing figure, he was wearing an olive military-style jacket. Seated directly behind his son, one of the new students who didn’t sign, he was dashing away tears with his finger, blinking rapidly. Deeply affected by his emotion, I had to quickly redirect my gaze towards the tableau on the dais: an official with his face hidden by a spray of flowers, another who was napping in the corner, and another whispering into his mobile phone.
After the speech-making and gift-giving, the first-year students were led to their classroom and the parents slowly started to leave. It was a poignant scene, mothers peering through the windows, fingers clutching the steel grills as they watched their sons and daughters take their seats in the classroom. Some of them remained for an hour, before being coaxed away by the DDP houseparents.
The very first thing the class learned was their name signs. Their name signs were initially given to them by the Kampot DDP fieldworker who had found them in their communes. The fieldworker remained in the room, pointing each student out and demonstrating their name signs to the teacher, who repeated it back to the students. The teacher introduced herself, repeatedly signing, “My name is (a sweeping downward motion from the ear to the chin, as if she was describing a bobbed haircut).”
Slowly, the students connected the Cambodian Sign Language signs for “My name is…” with themselves, signing their own names. These students now possess a name and an identity in Cambodian Sign Language. Over the next two years, they will learn a new language, make new connections and gain new knowledge, continuing the transformation that began on their first day.
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 is in Cambodia for nine months, exploring the emergence of a post-Khmer Rouge deaf community and Cambodian Sign Language. Follow Erin on Instagram @ErinMHarrelson and on Twitter @ErinMoriartyH.