Sign Language as second language

It’s cool. He’s deaf, and I don’t need to talk so he’ll never know I have an accent


Sign Language as second language
by nilofar-shidmehr

There is no private language.
-- Wittgenstein

I am in a line at my bank. The Brazilian and the Italian teller are busy with the customers who crane their necks to grasp what the tellers are saying in their thick accents. The quickest of tellers—a short, stout young man who doesn’t have an accent—a real Canadian—with short dyed blond spikes, is not in today. There is a sign on his counter: CLOSED. I look at my watch. The Italian and the Brazilian take their time. Keep talking. I’ll have to grab something to eat on my rush to class. They don’t care. They just shoot bland smiles at the impatient customers like me.

I see a hand waving at me from behind a desk at the other end of the counter. It belongs to a new teller—a young Chinese man who stands now behind the desk where new accounts are handled.

My turn. I take out my bankcard and the student loan check. The words pour out of my mouth even before I sit down, “I want to deposit this and I need forty dollars in cash.” I look at the teller’s mouth for a response. He smiles. I am confused. He moves his hand in front of my eyes and points to a sign on his desk. “I’m deaf. Please be prepared to communicate in writing.”

“Oh, cool,” I say out loud, “I am always prepared for writing.” He winks a few times, but his eyes stay focused on my lips. “Oh, Fuck. Who am I talking too? He’s deaf,” I tell myself before I change my mind: Why fuck? It’s cool. He’s deaf, and I don’t need to talk so he’ll never know I have an accent. I’ve never had my lips read. What’s more, I love writing. Actually, I am a writer. Or want to be. To be a romance writer. Sure I’m pursuing higher education (CAD drafting which has nothing to do with love but is good for making money and a secure future), but my secret passion is the writing courses at the local Community Centre.

But perhaps it’s too late for me. I am thirty-six and there isn’t much vocabulary in the word-bank and my savings is out of grammar. Nevertheless, I am more comfortable expressing myself in writing than speaking. Even in my mother tongue, Farsi, is defined by an old expression, as sweet as sugar. I have always felt this way. I didn’t always hate talking, but now I get cramps in my gut when I hear myself speak with an accent. This is new. Post-immigration syndrome. Words lose their shape in my mouth.

I’d like to deposit this cheque, withdraw forty dollars, and get the exchange rate of the Euro today. But I’m late and it takes so much less time to say things than to write them down. The teller writes, “Please write things you want to do, one at a time.” He draws a smile beside his words and passes the pen to me. I frown. I was told about the rule of “one thing at a time” in the ESL class. “Don’t cram up your sentences with too many ideas. It is best if each sentence contains only one idea.” Wherever you go in this country the same rule holds: one idea at a time—even at a bank with a deaf teller.

The paper in front of me is filled with some scribbles and silly smiles. I find a blank space between two happy faces and write my first request—a deposit. Then I raise my head and try to pull my lips to a smile. The teller gives me back a generous smile. “One moment.” He winks.

He takes my cheque and looks at the monitor. He looks the same age as me, maybe a few years younger. He is dressed in a vest and a tie and puts on glasses with rectangular shiny black frames that fit well on his round face, and even add an extra charm to his look. He is much darker than the Chinese I know. His black hair is spiked. He has the wide nose of a Filipino and the big eyes of a Vietnamese. Tiny freckles crowd around his nose. Under my gaze, he stands and turns. He has the build of a Japanese man—broad shoulders and short legs—but he does not walk in the short quick steps of the Samurai I’ve seen in movies.

Finally I manage a glance down at his handwriting on the page. Formal cliché sentences that slant towards the edge of the paper. I like the way his “g”s curl up and his “i”s curve in the middle. His handwriting makes me think he is easy-going and warm. It is good that I live in a time of personal computers, so no one has to see my childish handwriting in English. Especially publishers.

He prints a receipt and with a gentle nod indicates he wants me to sign. “Alright.” I catch myself speaking, and nod my head, yes. He grins, I can’t take my eyes off a happy row of teeth he displays—nor from the cute freckles on his wide nose. I shoot back a generous grin, satisfied with my ability to interpret this visual language of his and express myself in the same language. Where and when have I learned this language? I have no idea. Speaking it feels soothing—easy, comfortable. I have never felt so confident about my English skills during these bloody challenging years in Canada as I do now.

The teller drops his head and I remind myself of the first rule of thumb: Don’t try writing until ideas have gelled in your mind. Do all Canadians write and think in this way? One at a time? And what is it that I want to express? He is still waiting for me to sign the papers in front of me. But all I want is to drop the pen in my hand, and instead, grab hold of his meaty dark fingers, nested together on the desk. However, as a writer, I know that I should always hold onto a pen. My fingers should always remain faithful to the pen. Nowadays, the keyboard.

“Is there anything else I can do for you?” He writes on the only empty space left at the corner of the page; his words, like freckles on his nose, jam together. I think of writing him an invitation for coffee. In this way I fulfill my desire while staying faithful to the pen. Yes, that’s what he can do—go out on a date with me ☺. My hands, though, do not dare to express my wish. They stick not only to the pen but to the original plan.

“I need forty dollars in cash,” I write.

I wait for him to bring me the cash—the idea of going out on a date with him still fresh in my mind. I am already starting to develop a plot for our story of dating. And what about the genre? It is not a comedy. Drama? Romance? Yes, I like that. Love stories are my favorite. My aunt, the cute tiny old lady, who once was a teacher and never married, the woman who took care of me during the day, when my mother was at work, got me started on them. I was only three when she sat me on her lap telling me the story of Leila and Majnoon as she fed me at the same time. I’ll never forget the spark in her old virgin eyes when she narrated how much Leila suffered being apart from her lover. Persian literature is full of love stories: classics like Shirin and Farhad, Leila and Majnoon, Manije and Bahram. The most admired, read, and memorized form of poetry in Persia and today’s Iran has been “ghozal,” love poetry. Love is forbidden, but nevertheless, it has managed to survive a history of violence, invasion, and atrocities in Iran—all those cruel kings, pools of blood, and eyes and tongues gouged out.

The first scene is starting to form in my head. We are sitting in the Second Cup coffee shop just around the corner. We are both deaf and, as such, live in voluntary exile in our imaginary world. Writing is a lifestyle we have chosen for ourselves since we realized we didn’t belong to the real world but to the world of myths that no longer exist. We are, however, two productive members of a common past, constantly engaged in a serious discourse with a plummy future which never drops from the tree of possibility since it is not going to ripen, ever.

But today we have no paper or pen with us, so we pretend we are not only deaf but also blind. I take his glasses off and run my hand against his face where I know the freckles are—the same size and color as poppy seeds. Then I place my hand over his closed eyelids and listen to the words said by the movement of his pupils. My hands later slide down and rest on his latte-sweetened lips. They are sticky and give my fingertips a sudden tingle of excitement. He touches the bits of cupcake on the corner of my mouth, as I nibble his finger. It tastes like berries. I imagine my mouth as a paint brush of purple color. I paint his little freckles purple with my kisses. He pulls his face away when the waiter looms over us. We’re blind but still can feel his shadow falling on us. He slams forty dollars down on the table.

My teller gently touches my arm through my jacket and points to two twenty dollars bills laid down beside my hand. I take my time getting out my wallet and tucking the money inside. He looks over my shoulder and hesitates before handing me back my bank card. I turn around. A young girl, thin and blond, in tight jeans and a short tank top framing her full breasts and displaying her pierced belly button, is watching me. She shuffles every now and then. She wears a belt with large holes from which a set of chains hang. I quickly turn around and slip my bank card back towards my teller. Then I take the pen.

Yes, I am simply going to write to my teller that I am attracted to him before this girl takes my seat. I will use all the seductions of writing I’ve been taught. I will confess that I have always wished for a deaf lover, without being fully conscious of it. In this case, my accent won’t bother my lover; on the contrary, he’ll love it! Besides, in bed I can talk as much as I want without fearing that this might jeopardize things. In the past: I started talking to my lovers in my mother tongue when we were in bed, and the next morning they were gone. That’s why I am blaming Canada for all my romantic failures, and for all the sweet men with a strong and bitter tongue I’ve let into my bed.

I wish all Canadians were deaf! Then I would feel that I belong to this place. And I could have remained silent as I wished when I took the oath of allegiance to the Queen at my citizenship ceremony. But then what if they asked us to make that oath in writing? I’d be really screwed because I would not be able to cheat, which I actually did; I mumbled my favorite song in Farsi under my breath as other people were making their oath. I didn’t flee my homeland to avoid making an oath to the Supreme Leader, only to come to a country where they would force me again to make such an oath to a monarch.

Nevertheless I should not blame only the Supreme Leader or the Queen for my landing in a foreign place nine years ago. The members of the writing group I used to attend in Iran were no less bossy than the leaders of the revolution. They forced me to write dry literary stories which I do not have a taste for. They thought my romance writing was low, degrading, and superficial. Even worse—they called my stories unimaginative—not revolutionary enough. “Read Hemingway and Faulkner not Daniel Steel,” they said. To me, however, the simple act of love in a place where young men and women who stroll side by side in parks and are arrested and lashed for it, is a revolutionary act. I was once arrested in Sayi park, sitting between two male friends and reading one of my stories to them. They put me in a solitary cell for one day because of my crime. I would have got lashes if my parents had not fabricated a story that I was the official fiancée of the man sitting on my left. His mother gave the same version to the moral police over the phone.

I did not consider my act of sitting on a bench in a park with two guy friends, my writer friends, a heroic act, but I did for writing romance in a land of no love. I view my writing as my most subversive act, and even more revolutionary than the act of one of the female writers in our group, the tall classy woman with short hair. What she did was acknowledged as a brave and subversive course of action by all male writers; she worked for the Centre for Education of Children and Young Adults before and after the revolution. One day she was called before the Authorities in the Moral Office—those responsible for conducting and guarding moral norms in her workplace. She was given a repentant letter to sign. She didn’t wear hejab before the revolution and even for a short time after; she always talked with her male colleagues, and even was seen, laughing; she had counter-revolutionary, non-Islamic ideas. She should have been ashamed of her past and should have acknowledge her repentance by signing the letter provided to her. The classy virgin writer (by virgin here I mean unmarried) did sign the paper but not the one the Authorities wrote. She rewrote the entire letter, saying that she was proud of her past, yet she would comply with the new moral rules at the Center.

At least in my romantic tales I didn’t comply with any new rules in place at the writers’ group. I left the group when I was asked to quit reading Daniel Steel and write sublime, worthy, literary stories. Although I’d never read any of Daniel Steel’s books, I’d read the Persian counterpart R. Etemadi, which I kept a secret. I wouldn’t have gotten admitted to the group in the first place if I’d ever mentioned R. Etemadi. What I liked the most about his books were their imaginative and subversive titles written in Farsi in the front of the book and in French on the back—for example Ce soir une fille mourra. Like Classics such as Shahnameh, The Story of Kings, and Khosro and Shirin, and Salmon Rushdi’s Shame after Khomeini called for his head, and many yet-to-be-published books, R. Etemadi’s books were also banned after the revolution. The only place one could buy an old copy was on the black market, which I did, once, when I climbed five flights of creepy stairs in a dilapidated building in front of the University of Tehran to get to a second-hand bookstore, leaving me out of breath in a room full of dust and old books. I even had to get my hands on the owner’s wrinkly dick in order to get my hands on a copy of Ce Soir quelques larmers verseront.

I fiddle with the pen. Ce soir . . . There is no blank space left on the paper to write my proposal. But it doesn’t matter any more, because from now on I will communicate only in sign language. I have made up my mind to be a deaf writer. I will be much happier as such. I won’t need to give lectures at my book presentations, if there are any. When I introduce myself as the author of the book, nobody will raise their eyebrows or screw their faces, or look at me the way a Persian proverb says, which is the way a sane person looks at the crazy ones. I know that look very well. Besides I will be free of the question, “Where are you from?” thrown at me everywhere I go. I will no longer be an eternal alien in the land where I am a citizen.

I look the teller full in the face and put the pen down. I will communicate with him through his language. We are both deaf and will need no pen, paper, or even a keyboard. I have my hands, and he has his, to lift me up and take me to bed. I will strip him of his clothes but leave his glasses on. Their shiny frames will wink at me in the dark, shedding light on his tiny freckles. We will pronounce every vowel with our fingers as we’ll roll over on one another. Our tongues curled into each other, we will talk till morning.

As I return to myself, the teller smiles, looks straight into my eyes. Is he reading what I am writing? Not from the way he’s rolling his eyes. He looks down at his watch and points to the sentence he has written before, “Is there anything else I can do for you today?” Again my mind reels. “Yes. I want to know the exchange rate of . . .” This time, I notice, his last smile passes close to my ears and flies over my slumped shoulders. It is aimed not at me but at somebody who is standing behind me—the blond teenage girl who approaches to take my empty space.

So much for asking him out. Is it because I have an accent even when I talk in sign language? Have I offended him? Haven’t I gotten through? My instructor was right—even as a writer, it is hard to get anybody to know you exist nowadays.

To get even and please myself at the same time, I stand up, lean forward, and yell into his deaf ears, “Thank you very much.” I know he can’t hear me. But what the fuck? Let him be deaf. It’s his loss. He could be my lover. I gave him a chance. I was perfectly prepared to be deaf and even showed willingness to speak in his own language. But no. He prefers this teenage girl over me—a girl half my age, wearing a ridiculously short pink tank top, too tight jeans, and a belt with a set of ugly chains hanging from it. This girl who speaks twice as fluently as I do, in English. Perhaps I should seek vengeance on both of them.

Although I still haven’t walked away, the girl ignores me; her shoulder rubs against me as she sits down. Should I shout out that I am not finished yet, pull at the chain on her belt and knock her down? No, the girl is cute, petite, and sweet. And at closer range I see that she too has small freckles on her delicate nose. Besides, I don’t want to turn this story to a drama. No tears to be shed tonight. Romance is my favorite genre. So maybe I should come up with some peaceful diplomacy—a romantic plot—ask both of them out. Then each of us can speak his or her own language—Sign language, Farsi, and English. Yes, what about a ménage a trios? Wouldn’t that be perfect? Ce soir nous converserons d’ amour en trios langues de toutes les langues de Canada, mes amies. After all, we’re living in a multi-cultural—multi-lingual society, aren’t we?

Previously published in Galleaon 1.1, Lee D. Thompson, Ed. Canada, summer 2007.


more from nilofar-shidmehr
Azarin Sadegh

Dear Niloufar,

by Azarin Sadegh on

I had read your work before, a piece about your name. I had loved that one so much that I ended up writing my own version of it about my own name!

And now I just read your story. I love your sharp humor, and the smooth and smart flow of your story.

And please don't worry! We see you as a writer! You are defintely a visible writer in the world of addicts.

You know, I have the same dream as you (to become a writer, but not a romance writer though :), but I actually started to write much later than you.

When I was 20 (it was during the bombings of the war), an amateur fortune_teller told me that I was going to die at 46 and I laughed at her. Amazingly, the year I started to take my first writing class at UCLA Extension was in 2006 and I had just turned 46.

She was probably right.

I --the old Azarin, the successful software engineer -- died at 46 and another one was born from its ashes, to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. And at this point, i don't even care if I don't become the writer I want to be, since this whole journey is pure happiness...

who cares if I get to the destination or not :)

So my dear Niloufar, don't give up and enjoy the ride!

Take care,



I like your writing.

by aaj sr (not verified) on

the flow of imagination like movement of a butterfly is admirable.


The first image of an hillock.

by Francesco Sinibaldi (not verified) on

This is the
first image of
an open hillock,
and this is
the sun now
recalling the action
of a singing blackbird,
that beautiful care
becoming excited
while the dark
fades away......

Francesco Sinibaldi