“We often had lunch together — I taught him English and he would correct my signs. That’s how language is learnt. You’ll make significant improvements by having deaf friends.”
“I would say that these experiences make me mentally stronger with greater empathy for others. When people share their difficulties with you, do not criticise why they don’t solve their own problems — there might be predicaments that you’d never be able to comprehend,” says Prof Felix Yim Binh Sze, reflecting on her unusual upbringing and hence her enthusiasm in improving the mental well-being of the underprivileged, especially the deaf.
We arrived at Felix’s office at the Centre for Sign Linguistics and Deaf Studies in CUHK University Academy Building No. 2 on a Thursday afternoon. The chalky white building near Science Park shimmered amidst swaying palm trees and open lawns.
From English Literature to Deaf Studies
Felix is an Associate Professor of the Department of Linguistics and Modern Languages, and the co-director of the Centre for Sign Linguistics and Deaf Studies. Last year, together with Prof Winnie Mak of the Department of Psychology, she launched the project “Enhancing Mental Health of the Deaf Community in Hong Kong” supported by CUHK Knowledge Transfer Project Fund (KPF). The project builds a Sign Language-Chinese bilingual database on mental well-being for deaf individuals to understand mental health issues such as “depression” and “anxiety”, and raises awareness on deaf identity and mental health through storytelling training sessions.
As a hearing person without deaf friends or relatives, how did Felix start her academic research on the deaf and sign language in the first place? This all began with her undergraduate studies.
Felix studied English at CUHK in 1990s through the “Provisional Acceptance Scheme”. But Felix soon reconciled that she was not that into English Literature and found her interest in linguistics instead.“As I learnt more and more about linguistics, I realised that I was not meant for a particular subject if I dozed off when studying. Yet linguistics keeps me on the ball.”
Upon graduation, she turned down the invitation to teach English at her alma mater and moved on to MPhil in linguistics. At first she studied the acquisition of Cantonese of young children, but the departure of her thesis supervisor from CUHK opened up a new pathway.
“I was a teaching assistant of Prof Gladys Tang. She asked if I wanted to study sign language and I just hopped on the opportunity.” Felix admits that, most of the time, her direction in life is to go with the flow. “I never say I have to do this or that. Instead I keep doing what I’m interested in, and seize the opportunity.”
It was then that she first got in touch with the deaf community, not because of any noble mission, but out of sheer attractiveness of sign language.
“I read about brain science and grammatical analysis of sign language. It was serendipity. The language system of sign language is totally different from Cantonese or English. I picked up basic sign language in 1998, starting from numbers, alphabets and simple vocabularies like father and mother.”
We had heard from Prof Gladys Tang the very interesting story on how Felix came on a “maestro” on sign language. Kenny, the first deaf researcher at the Centre, is a native signer. Felix literally found him on the street.
Finding Teacher on the Street
“I only started learning sign language during my MPhil studies. My first sign language teacher was hard-of-hearing. His was fluent in sign language though a late learner. As I read more research papers I realised that it would be better to learn from native signers, just as learning any language from native speakers. So I began looking for a native signer. Yet fewer than 5% of deaf people are native signers as most are born to hearing non-signing parents. One night, after visiting my boyfriend (now my husband), I met a couple at the bus stop. They were signing to each other. I ignored the arriving bus, went up to them instead and asked if they could teach me sign language.”
They exchanged contacts. It turned out that the girl was from a deaf family and was genuine native signer. Felix would visit the girl’s home to learn sign language, and got to know the girl’s deaf brother Kenny, who is now a staff at the Centre. Kenny was then a construction worker. He studied very hard to complete his undergraduate studies at CUHK. It took him 5 years of sub-degree training before he got into the BA in Linguistics (senior year entry). Today Kenny is studying masters and is a sign language instructor at CUHK. It was a thorough transformation for him.
“There were several big jumps in my sign language proficiency. Learning from Kenny was certainly one of those. We often had lunch together — I taught him English and he would correct my signs. That’s how language is learnt. You’ll make significant improvements by having deaf friends.”
For Felix, studying an MPhil was a random decision, but it was with much determination that she went for a doctorate. During the three years of her masters studies, she saw how difficult it was to rid the misconceptions of officials in the Education Bureau on sign language. (Sign language was often disregarded. Deaf students could only wear hearing aids or read lips in class.) “Sign language can assist deaf children’s learning and development tremendously, but the officials do not understand this. Yet they are the ones who formulate the policies. I have to be well-equipped academically to change the institution.”
After thorough consideration, she began her doctorate in Deaf Studies in 2000 at the University of Bristol. She resolved to take Deaf Studies and declined the offer from University of Cambridge on a postgraduate research program on Second Language Acquisition of English.
Others might not be able to understand why Felix turned down an offer from a top university of the world. Did her family doubt her decision?
“No. Throughout my childhood my parents were busy making ends meet. So I was pretty free to do what I liked. They never questioned my decisions at all, and supported me always.” Felix goes on to elaborate on how she becomes mentally strong due to her unusual upbringing.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
“You can tell that the spelling of my name in English is a bit strange. I am Vietnamese Chinese. I was born in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and my family fled to Hong Kong in 1976 when I was two. My grandfather, dubbed “the Banana King”, used to run a successful fruit business in the Chinatown of Ho Chi Minh City. As soon as the troops of North Vietnam took over South Vietnam in 1975, they began purging Chinese. They voided the local currency, and confiscated the properties of Chinese and restricted their freedom of movement. Like all other wealthy Chinese, my grandfather lost his fortune overnight.”
Hong Kong saw the influx of Vietnamese refugees since mid-1970. Luckily, Felix’s father had studied in Hong Kong when he was young, and he had a Hong Kong ID card. Her family was retreated to Hong Kong by the British Hong Kong government chartered flight. “Most of other Chinese fled as stowaways by boat. That was extremely risky. My aunt and her boyfriend’s family of a dozen drowned in the sea.” It was a tragic period of oppression and narrow escape.
“Many Chinese families lost everything overnight. They could not withstand the persecution and the whole family committed suicide, like adding raticide in their last dinner. I felt very shocked hearing these true stories.” Felix does not remember much about the days in Vietnam, but she has heard loads of these agonising stories from her parents.
Vietnamese refugee crisis had troubled Hong Kong for nearly a quarter of a century. Many of the refugees faced discrimination. As Vietnamese Chinese, Felix was sometimes verbally abused by her schoolmates in her senior primary and junior secondary school years. “The harassment had lasted for some time, but stopped when they probably realised I was a pretty bright student. This somehow made me mentally stronger, and not to take ridicules seriously. My background as a refugee enables me to empathise more easily with the underprivileged.”
Psychological well-being of the deaf neglected
Empathy is the key to the creation of the project on mental health for deaf individuals. “When I was pursuing my doctorate degree in the UK, a fellow student with a background in psychology shared that what is stressless for the hearing can be distressing for the deaf. Their needs are easily neglected if we do not pay attention.”
“For instance, in many parts of UK, passengers have to tell the bus driver their destinations when boarding so that the bus driver can let the passenger know how much the bus fare is. This is no easy task for the deaf. When there are other passengers queuing to get on the bus, the bus driver can get impatient. This will make deaf passengers stressful. The design of some mental health questionnaires may not reflect the reasons for deaf individuals to be stressful in a bus ride. They are misunderstood as having serious anxiety and misdiagnosed for being mentally ill, and the situation evolves into a vicious cycle.”
Felix points out that without proper training, psychologists may fail to see such double-misinterpretation. They may resort to drugs or refer them to psychiatrists instead of understanding and solving their actual needs.
Another incident that upsets Felix is the suicide of Li Ching in 2008. Li Ching passed public examination with flying colours, yet she had great difficulty in finding a job upon graduation. She was then referred to work at the Centre for Sign Linguistics and Deaf Studies. “She grew up in mainstream schools with spoken languages only. It had been very stressful to her, and her mental health was not very well when she joined us at the Centre. She had then made effort in assimilating into the signing deaf community but could not help feeling defeated,” Felix chokes back her tears.
“Her death was a huge blow to everyone at the Centre. It however strengthened my belief in the importance of mental well-being for the deaf. We would never wish to see another similar incident.” Her calling is backed by several young colleagues including Kloris Lau who is about to take a masters course in counselling, and Ham Chu who is currently studying masters in clinical psychology.
Project members of “Enhancing mental health of the Deaf community in Hong Kong” (from left to right): Kloris Lau, Prof Felix Sze, Prof Winnie Mak and Ham Chu. (ORKTS/CUHK)
This project also embodies the transfer of knowledge among several “generations” of tutors and students.
Ham, 28 years of age and hearing, came across Kenny’s sign language class when she was an undergraduate student in Psychology at CUHK. She was fascinated by the world of sign language, and has since then kept learning sign language and becomes a sign language interpreter. She aims to be a clinical psychologist who can provide therapy in Hong Kong Sign Language for deaf individuals. Her enthusiasm in this fortuitous journey is impressive.
The project integrates academic knowledge and experience of both departments of Linguistics and Psychology at CUHK. Felix and Kloris are building a sign language database by scrutinising concepts in psychology in sign language. Winnie and Ham provide storytelling training sessions to enhance community engagement of deaf individuals, and raise awareness of the general public by having the deaf to sign their own stories.
It is time for Felix to leave after an enjoyable sharing on Hong Kong Sign Language and Deaf culture. Felix hastily picks up her backpack, “Gotta go and fetch my guinea pig from the pet clinic!”
【Scholarly keyword】Blink and phrase
Felix mentions that deaf and sign language studies are very broad, “I study whatever I find interesting.” Her research interests include euphemisms in sex-related signs in Asian sign languages, incorporation of gestures of hearing people into sign language, sign language assessments, documentation, whether learning sign language helps the elderly to improve cognition and spatial recognition, etc.
Facial expression, posture and eye contact are essential elements in communication between deaf individuals. “Eye contact is especially important as the breaking of it means disengagement. When they quarrel, they simply face away.”
“They blink to indicate the break of a sentence. I have published interesting findings in related studies. But analysing large amount of blinking data in signing video is a daunting task,” Felix smiles wryly.