When I was nine years old, I learned the hand alphabet (finger-spelling) for American Sign Language (ASL) at church camp. When I returned home (a small town outside of Houston) my sister and I started watching a program that taught sign language on the local PBS affiliate titled “Signing with Cindy.”
My interest in sign language has continued throughout my life. I took classes in ASL at the Deaf Action Center in Dallas in the 1980s and served as an occasional interpreter for deaf people at banks or doctors’ offices. I took two courses in ASL at a local college a few years ago.
Why am I writing about sign language?
Stay with me on this.
Sign language is great at passing along concrete information. You can easily explain what you’ve been doing, the shape and color of an object, where a thing is located…
But one of the unusual things about sign language is the difficulty of expressing complicated ideas or multiple layers of feeling.
For example, I think that we can agree that “being blue” is a more complex and sustained form of feeling sad. But if you’ve ever felt blue you know that calling it sadness is to miss the point of the sensation — and of what language is capable of. It isn’t simply sadness, but a kind of chronic condition that compromises how you feel about your surroundings.
The feelings I’m writing about are specific to international travel.
But how do you pass along the idea in sign language “feeling blue”? It’s a metaphor that simply doesn’t translate — feelings aren’t colors. In ASL, you can demonstrate degrees of sadness (you use your forefinger to turn down the end of your mouth… to say you’re really sad, you exaggerate the motion of turning down your mouth.)
You’re in the comfort of your own home, and then within hours, you’re plopped down into what is unequivocally a New World.
(You can read more about the difficulty of expressing metaphors via Sign Language in Language from the Body: Iconicity and Metaphor in American Sign Language by Sarah F. Taub; Cambridge University Press, 2010.)
I hope you’re still with me.
Lastly, the sign for “same” is to extend both forefingers (like you’re pointing at things with both hands) then touch them together, side by side, twice. “Same-same.” It’s the sign to say that two objects are similar.
But it’s also one of the few signs in ASL that can be used metaphorically. It means “uninteresting because [the event or circumstance] is the same-old same-old.”
Same-same. When used in this way, you should affect a facial expression showing boredom or disinterestedness.
When I travel, the first couple of days I go through a tremendous blue period. I feel a darkness come over me that lasts for about three days. I have trouble sleeping, despite being exhausted.
What thoughts are keeping me awake? I think feelings are the better way to describe what prevents me from falling asleep:
I feel displaced — as if I’m somewhere I’m not welcome (even though I know that no place owes me a “welcome.”) I feel a homesick longing for my reading chair, my own things, for being with my partner Bill, for the familiarity of the huge windows of our tiny house…
I feel inadequate to the tasks — how will I ever (fill in the blank)? How can I effectively (fill in the blank)? This feeling is not about figuring it out, but is the fear of going through unknown and undone things.
I feel lost, as if I’ve landed in a place that will remain forever foreign.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my response to traveling — the feelings I go through when I first leave home. This is my 7th time outside the USA; I feel it every time.
Traveling forces me to draw on skills that get flimsy from lack of use. It’s this odd sensation of going back to Square One inside myself — shaking off how I construct a day… then starting from scratch. I shed Regular Me and take on another approach to living, even if only for a few weeks… or, in this case, five weeks.
So why travel at all?
The part of me that craves Change is in conflict with the part that wants everything to Remain The Same. But Same loses its ability to comfort. It’s not easy to allow Change to happen because it carries with it question marks and Unknowns.
I’ve left the “same-same” of my life for the Different All The Time of travel. (I love my life, but doesn’t everyone feel as if they fall into ruts sometime?)
I woke up this morning feeling better. After the depression ends, I settle into my New Normal, which is a heightened version of myself. Everything seems fresh and unexplored.
When traveling, nearly every moment you’re creating — or recreating — how you spend time. There is no “zoning out” like when you’re at home. Nothing is familiar enough to allow it.
It feels overwhelming to face so much — hour after hour, day after day. But it’s this overwhelmingness that makes travel such a phenomenal experience.
I started this post with sign language information for two reasons. First, to emphasize the difficulty of translating complicated feelings to other people. Some of the blue feelings I go through remain mysterious even to me.
The second reason is because of the sign for same-same. If nothing else, travel forces a person to confront the same-same of their lives. There is no intermediate place to take little bites of travel. You’re in the comfort of your own home, and then you’re plopped down into what is unequivocally a New World.
This is hardly an exhaustive list, but it’s helpful to think about: when you arrive at your destination, you have to figure out how to get the local currency, maneuver an unknown airport (or train station, depending) get transportation to wherever you will stay the night, get food, navigate an unknown city, communicate in an unknown language, get from Point A (wherever you happen to be) to Point B (the place you want to go) and do it with as much grace and humility as possible.
And you always do it. You always survive.
It is also about the incredible joy of meeting people for the first time and learning about cultures I would never experience otherwise. My faith in humankind is reinforced because I am helped so often by strangers.
People are good — strangers are good. I think this fact gets lost in the barrage of news coverage about the meanness and violence around the world. We forget that these images and deeds are the actions of a very few people and don’t represent the essential nature of 99% of human beings.
We tend to put that fear onto people we don’t know or understand.
Believe me — if your faith in Other People is being compromised, then you must travel internationally. Learn to ask for help. Figure out what it means to be vulnerable. Rediscover, again, that people are wonderful all over the world:
— the Russian man in the train station in Helsinki — he understood that I had asked how to buy a ticket. He tried to tell me, but his English wasn’t up to the task, so he stood up and said, “I take you” — and he did, all the way to the other side of the station, up three different flights of stairs …
— the Colombian man at the bank yesterday who walked me to the ATM (not his bank’s ATM) and showed me how to use it. (He felt confident that the other larger bank would take my non-chip-enabled ATM card.) He waited until I had my pesos, then shook my hand, and told me to be careful…
— the Thai man in Chiang Mai who walked with me five blocks to show me where the Night Market was located — then bowed to me and walked away…
I suppose it comes down to this: how does anyone fully explain the complicated workings of our emotional lives? We can do only so much.
But I wanted to try. I also wanted the process of travel to not come across as if it is one big Happy-fest.
It takes “same-same” and turns it inside out. It’s heart-wrenching — and heart-opening — from the start of the journey, and all the way back home.