A World Without Sound

My uncle, after falling ill as a child, became deaf-mute, leaving the world of sound. I spent several days with him this summer (in rural China, where he lives) in silent communion.

When asking my uncle if he had any recollection of a world with sound, he simply responded “there’s faint memory, but I don’t really miss it.” I spent those days trying to put myself in his shoes— learning sign language, exaggerating my facial expressions, mimicking the way his body moved as he signed, and imagining what life might look like as a resident of the World Without Sound.

So many things are different in this World. For one, visual cues are all you have most of the time in being able to interact with the outside world. Forget speech for a second— things like crossing the street safely or driving become difficult, as they are so highly dependent on many audio cues that we take for granted in daily life. My uncle and I went on several walks around the rural neighborhood, and there was not a shortage of times where I had to alert him of events that happened within the World of Sound: a car coming from behind, a man shouting at us to get off wet concrete. So many things in the acoustical world that we take for granted are simply not things that he’s thought of, or experienced before.

My uncle hates dinner parties—he’s painfully bored at them, yet waits patiently as People With Sound inquire about my life in America. They also talk about how my uncle is so talented and smart, and would be “a better person” if only he could hear and speak. I don’t appreciate this last bit, and tell them so. Chinese culture is generally not as accepting of disabilities as American culture is; the lack of diversity (of any kind) in China’s homogenous population being just one factor for the status quo.

I also pondered many reasons why the World Without Sound would be a more preferable place to be. You wouldn’t have to experience how harsh and hurtful words could be; you’d be immune to painful small talk. You never have to wear noise cancelling headphones, never distracted by background noise when trying to work.

Words are so much more meaningful in this World. To me, the effort it took to sign something allowed me to think many times over what I was about to say before I said it. Was it worth it to say? Would there be consequences to what I said? Imagine what our conversations might look like if everyone thought before they spoke. I can’t help but think that the elegant manner in which my uncle signs has played a role in shaping him into the genuine and thoughtful person he is.

It is not often that I see my uncle. But when I do, I know we will always have a great time together in the World Without Sound.

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Love you, uncle.
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