Nelson Mandela once said: “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, it goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” It was only until I sat down to write my wedding speech that I realised how proud I was to be able to celebrate my own multiculturalism. This was epitomised in my speech, which I ended up writing in four different languages: English, for the families of my wife and step-father and for our friends from England; BSL, for my parents and our close family friends; Bengali, for my grandparents and extended family; and French, for our friends from France. Writing my speech in four different languages was not about making communication easier, it was about demonstrating that each language represents a culture and community that forms part of who I am, and that I was not just giving a generic speech but talking directly to all four of my own identities. This was the turning point for me, where I realised how proud I was to be able to celebrate my own multiculturalism. In this article, I want to offer my own story about being a multicultural CODA, as well as my own understanding of the multicultural CODA phenomenon.
The term ‘CODA’ is an acronym for Children of Deaf Adults. Emerging from the USA in the 1980s, ‘CODA’ is becoming an increasingly standardised term to refer to the hearing children of deaf parents, who have traditionally been seen as occupying some kind of void between the deaf and hearing worlds. Although the term has attracted some scepticism and criticism from within the CODA community for various reasons, the CODA phenomenon is increasingly being seen as more than just a label, but as an overarching ‘pseudo-national’ identity that serves to provide a tangible sense of belonging and attachment for all those born to deaf parents.
More recently, the CODA idea has evolved into a term that attempts to encapsulate the diversity of its members by providing an overarching ‘backbone’ for several sub-identities, such as ‘only hearing CODA’ (OH-CODA), ‘child of CODA and child of deaf adult’ (COCA-CODA) and ‘multicultural CODA’. These sub-groups, within the wider CODA idea, sit within a hierarchical conceptual framework, governed by the overarching CODA identity. This is similar to the way multicultural societies function, as the national identity, usually the culture and values of the majority population, serves as the overarching identity for several sub-groups of society, such as ethnic minority groups. For example, I could be described as ‘British Asian’, which means that I am both ‘British’ and ‘Asian’, but it is the ‘British’ identity that provides, and allows for, the existence of the ‘Asian’ sub-group. As a result, a person can be Black, White, Asian or Chinese as well as British. In each case, that person belongs to the overarching ‘British’ identity in addition to their respective sub-group of British society. The same hierarchical structure applies to the CODA identity, which provides, and allows for, the existence of the several CODA sub-groups.
One of these CODA sub-groups is the emerging ‘multicultural CODA’ movement, which focuses mostly on the experiences of CODAs from mostly non-White ethnic backgrounds. The term ‘multicultural’ most likely derives from the idea that this sub-group of CODAs are exposed to more than just the deaf culture of their parents and the national culture of the country they live in. In contrast to the traditional bicultural perspective of the CODA identity, which focuses on the relationship between the generic ‘deaf’ and ‘hearing’ identities, for multicultural CODAs, the interplay between their deaf and hearing identities is influenced significantly by their other identities.
My experience of being a multicultural CODA
My grandparents, like many other people from the Commonwealth, immigrated to the UK from Bangladesh in the 1950s. Their decision to stay in the UK was, in part, due to the fact my mother was born profoundly deaf. Although my grandparents’ native language was Bengali, they limited the amount of Bengali they spoke at home because it was more important for my mother to learn English. Nevertheless, I was, and still am, exposed to the Bengali language through extended family. My mother married my hearing birth father, who was born in Bangladesh. However, due to communication problems, the marriage did not survive very long and my mother later remarried my deaf step-father when I was around 3 years old. As a result, my first words were in BSL, the language we continue to use at home, though I was the only fluent hearing signer in my family until I married, as my two younger sisters are not interested in learning BSL fluently. The fact my birth father was born in Bangladesh means that I have inherited Bangladeshi citizenship. My step-father is White British, which meant I was brought up with three cultures and three languages: the Bengali culture and language of my mother’s family, the English culture and language of my step-father’s family and the deaf culture and language of my parents.
Growing up, I had a lot of input from my grandparents and my mother’s extended family, which meant I had a lot of exposure to Bengali culture, and South Asian culture in general. Although I picked up some Bengali, and can understand the language relatively well, my parents’ deafness meant that Bengali had to come third to BSL and English. Although this meant that my parents could be included in family discussions, and were always included within the extended family, it also limited the exposure I had to the Bengali language. Nevertheless, growing up with BSL as a native language allowed me to develop an interest in learning more about sign language and deaf culture, prompting my decision to study BSL while I was school. I really enjoyed studying BSL and look back on that time fondly, and I still maintain an interest in deaf issues and the linguistics of BSL. My early exposure to different languages and cultures is what drove my passion for languages and intercultural communication, and my eventual career in the interpreting and translation field. It had always been a childhood dream of mine to work with languages, a dream that I have finally managed to fulfil.
I started learning French at school and found I had a talent for languages. I decided to pursue my interest in French and graduated with a BA (Honours) in French and Linguistics from the University of Manchester in 2013. As part my degree, I spent a year living in France, which allowed me to immerse myself in French culture. I am fortunate to be able to keep in touch with many of my French friends, and I also have some extended family in France, which means I am still able to maintain a strong link with France. After I graduated, I decided to pursue my interest in sign language by training to become a sign language interpreter. My decision to go into sign language interpreting was based on my lifelong passion for languages and on my experiences of language brokering and cross-cultural communication. My grandfather was a senior Bengali/English interpreter who devoted much of his life to the Bangladeshi community and served as Chairman of the Manchester Bangladeshi Community for some time. My grandmother still works as a Bengali/English interpreter.
It was a combination of my personal experience growing up in a multilingual and multicultural environment and of my aspiration to achieve something similar for the deaf community, as my grandparents did for the Bangladeshi community, that motivated my career in sign language interpreting. Unfortunately, I encountered some major problems within the sign language interpreting field, mostly with hearing interpreters, which led to my recent decision to leave the sign language interpreting profession. In 2016, I completed an MA in Translation and Interpreting from the University of Manchester, specialising in French to English translation, and now work as a French to English translator.
In 2015, I had the opportunity to attend the International CODA Conference in Reading, organised by CODA UK and Ireland, where I went to the multicultural CODA breakout session. I went in without any expectations, but I left with emotions running high. I had been warned about the emotional and psychological effect the breakout sessions can have for someone who has never been to a conference before, but, admittedly, I found the more general breakout sessions much less moving. Much of the session involved people sharing their stories and feelings about their CODA experiences, but I was expecting this, having been exposed to this kind of narrative through previous research on CODAs. I have a generally positive outlook on my CODA identity, so I didn’t feel I related much to the general breakout sessions. The multicultural CODA breakout session was different, as it exposed me to a much more specific experience that fell more in line with my own experience. What I found most moving, and even shocking, was the similarity of each person’s experience to my own. Again, much of the session involved the sharing of stories and experiences. While I respect that some people value this opportunity, I am more interested in exploring my multicultural identity and celebrating my own multiculturalism.
One of the main themes brought up was the challenge in conforming to all three, or more, native identities. Many CODAs felt that the challenges of the multicultural CODA experience, as a whole, influenced them to ignore their third culture, and that this third culture constituted an additional pressure to their identity and lives. I also struggled with balancing all three of my native cultures and, for a long time, my English and deaf identities took priority over my Bangladeshi identity. I often meet other British Bangladeshis who are taken aback by how little I know about Bengali culture and how much I behave like a White British person. In my opinion, these judgements are based purely on the colour of my skin and do not take into account the impact of my other identities, not least my deaf identity.
I have three native identities and one assumed identity. But the way I organise them has varied throughout my life. Where they sit now in relation to each other is different to where they would have been earlier in my life, and will be different again as I grow older. There are two ways at looking at identity. You can look at them as parts to a whole, in that my three native identities make up the whole, which is who I am, or as separate independent wholes that I then choose to accept or reject. The first idea is the traditional idea that I talk about in my article on the ‘bipartite paradox’, where it produces the illusion that the identity is ‘split’ into different parts and that the different parts are conflicting with each other. But this is not really how I understand my several identities: I view them more as independent wholes, which I then choose to accept or reject. The extent to which I accept or reject them change over time, but they still exist. It is a question of how much I feel a sense of belonging and attachment to them.
At the moment, I would rank my hearing identity first, simply because that is the identity I currently feel most in touch with, followed by English, Bangladeshi, Deaf and French. For me, the order I rank my identities corresponds to the extent to which I feel the most belonging and attachment, and this will change depending on my current circumstances. As I am currently not working with the deaf community, my deaf identity has become less significant to me in comparison to my other identities. If I was in Bangladesh, for example, it is likely that I would feel the most connection with my Bengali identity.
Comparison with multicultural deaf people
Although not by much, there has been slightly more research on multiculturalism within the deaf community. Studies have overwhelmingly shown that for many deaf people, it is the deaf identity that comes first. This comes as no surprise for me, having grown up within the deaf community, as it seems that the difficulty many deaf people face with fitting in to hearing society leads them to find a home within the deaf community. This observation correlates with the findings of a study on British Asian deaf people, which revealed that the ‘deaf’ and ‘Muslim’ identities came first for many. Cultural and national identities, such as ‘British’, ‘Pakistani’ or ‘Bangladeshi’ often came last due to the feeling of not fitting in to these cultures. This is similar to the multicultural CODA dynamic, and fit in with my observations from the multicultural CODA breakout session, in that many multicultural CODAs place their ‘third’ cultural and national identity after their deaf and hearing ones. This was also the case for me until I reached adulthood and began to find a new interest in my Bangladeshi identity.
However, while I share similarities with multicultural deaf people, I also find that I differ in terms of ‘fitting in’ because, unlike deaf people, learning to live and function in a hearing world has forced me to ‘fit in’ as much as possible. It was only until it was pointed out to me that I noticed the similarity between my ability to function within the deaf world without standing out as hearing, and my ability to function within French society without standing out as English. I think this comes from the fact that I have learned how to walk and talk within hearing society without being noticed as CODA. As a result, contrary to multicultural deaf people, who often find difficulties with fitting in, CODAs are often forced to learn the art of fitting in through living in the hearing world.
Comparison with children of immigrants
Many studies have drawn parallels between the CODA experience and the experience of immigrant children, as both often find themselves struggling to accept the culture of their parents and the culture of the country they live in. In my article on the ‘bipartite paradox’, I talk about how claiming membership of two communities also results in becoming a member of neither. If you are a member of A then you are not a member of B, and if you are a member of B then you are not a member of A and so you are a member of neither and both at the same time. This is the reason why a separate CODA identity is necessary. This paradox rings true for both CODAs and immigrant children, but on a more realistic level, the experiences are less similar than in theory. Deaf culture, despite being different, is relatively hidden away from mainstream society, whereas ethnic minorities are not. In particular, the colour of a person’s skin makes someone stand out and is something we cannot hide. As a result, a person’s ethnicity is much more likely to cause conflict than someone having deaf parents. Therefore, previous studies on CODAs that have likened the CODA experience to the experience of immigrant children are shortcoming in acknowledging the extent to which they are truly similar. In my experience, the colour of my skin has received much more attention than the fact my parents are deaf, which has meant that the interplay between my British and Bangladeshi cultures has posed more of a problem for me than my deaf and hearing identities. It is therefore unconvincing to argue that the experiences of CODAs and immigrant children are exactly the same.
Perhaps one of the biggest similarities I encountered was when applying for a Bangladeshi passport. I was told that the only reason I was entitled to a Bangladeshi passport was because my father was born in Bangladesh, as I was born and had spent all of my life in the UK and was therefore British. But to many English people, the only reason I am entitled to a British passport is because I was born in the UK, but my heritage and culture is rooted in Bangladesh. This is a practical example of the ‘bipartite paradox’ because when I tried to claim membership of both countries, I also felt that I was a member of neither. Similarly, I was often told during my sign language interpreting training that I was “too deaf” in the way I behaved and signed, and yet when I was teaching BSL I was looked down on for being hearing. Again, when trying to fit in to both worlds, I also felt I fit in to neither.
One of the several positive impacts of being a multicultural CODA is that it has given me a greater insight into the relationship people have with their deaf and hearing identities. It has also allowed me to have greater empathy towards CODAs who choose not to interact with the deaf community at all. Societal pressures and the expectation to be a fully functioning hearing person can force you to adopt and conform to the majority culture, and it takes strength and bravery to go against the status quo. This was perhaps the case for me in the past when I felt ‘less’ Bangladeshi because of my commitment to my other identities. This doesn’t mean that I am not Bangladeshi, it just means that I have a lesser sense of attachment to that particular identity.
While I feel proud to be able to celebrate all three of my native cultures, and to celebrate my own multiculturalism in general, I also regret not making the effort earlier to learn more about my ‘third culture’. Going to the multicultural CODA breakout session at CODALAND has made me realise how remarkably similar our stories are, which all fall back on the complex interplay between three, four or more different cultures and identities. While I share similarities with both multicultural deaf people and with the children of immigrants, there are also some major differences that come from growing up as a multicultural CODA, stemming from being forced to ‘fit in’ to a hearing world. It is possible that the challenges and issues raised at the multicultural CODA breakout session derive from the paradox of feeling that you belong to all and none of your three native cultures at the same time. But this is just a small part of what it means to have the gift of multiple languages and cultures, which is why my next step in life is to learn more about the Bengali language and culture. For me, there is nothing remarkable about speaking four languages and living between four cultures because that is simply who I am: being able to do so allows me to define my own multicultural CODA identity.