Sunday, November 9, 2008

Arriving in Sydney: Auslan! And Bears...

On Monday, November 3, I flew from Melbourne to Sydney, which is just about an hour’s flight. Felt like heaven after the 24 hours spent flying to Melbourne from the US! For those who don’t have any idea of Australian geography, Melbourne is on the southeast coast of Australia in the state of Victoria, right across the ocean from Tasmania (which is also part of Australia). Follow the coast going east and north and pretty soon you’ll hit Sydney, which is in the state of New South Wales. Sydney’s the city with the Opera House and where that Finding Nemo fish ends up.

My host in Sydney is Sharon Smith of the Multicultural Disability Advocacy Association (MDAA) of New South Wales, who picked me up wearing a bright pink wig. Yep. Just to be sure I didn’t miss her! I found Sharon through Carolyn Frohmader, the executive director for Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA). (Thanks Carolyn!!!! By the way Carolyn is based in Tasmania if anyone happens to be going there.)

Anyway after a quick swing through Sydney to orientate me (Circular Quay, Newtown, George Street, etc and not necessarily in that order), and after a quick meal of spaghetti at her house, Sharon took me along to her Auslan class at St. George TAFE.

A TAFE is sort of like continuing education or maybe community college in the US. Sharon is pretty cool in that she’s a busy person who’s also a learner of new things (she does other classes too). This class was overseen by an Australian Deaf man named Brett, who was very nice about allowing me to observe his 15 or so students in action. Back when I first started learning American Sign Language, I took classes a lot like this one, so I was interested to see how it would go.

As it turns out, it’s pretty much the same as an ASL Level One, the topic of the day being fruits and vegetables (and for me, Auslan fingerspelling---look Ma, TWO hands!!). The teacher’s tone essentially sets the tone for the class, and Brett from what I can tell has his teaching methods down. He has a mix of great students and ok ones, and also his share of the class clowns (hello to David and Ken!) if your average class clowns are gay bear cut-ups who bring fans to class (yes, fans, and in Ken’s case his had a photo of gay lovers printed on it).

Anyhow Brett and I had fun exchanging signs and he had me sign for a few minutes to his class about what I do---but the signing for what I do is a bit past Level One, though I appreciate the effort to hang in there! The students were pretty open about letting me hang around with them and luckily Sharon is not shy about using her fingerspelling to help me understand words when I can’t lipread them (sometimes it’s the Aussie accent, sometimes there are just words that are used in Australia that I don’t know).

One important thing Brett mentioned was that in Australia, videophone is still very new and to communicate people still use TTY or relay on IP relay. I find this pretty interesting because somehow I expected Australia to be as wired as South Korea, but nope, not the case. South Korea is more wired than the US, but they lack an interpreter relay service like the ones we have for videophone.

A word about being in Australia without an ASL interpreter: YES, it is hard work to lipread people. I ask for a lot of repeats but quite often do get the gist of things and it gets a little easier each day. But it is hard work. People are generally pretty nice about it here and I find that the Aussies I have talked with are not shy about chatting, for the most part.

At the end of the class, Sharon and I gave her classmate a ride home, and of course as we drive along which bears pull up beside us and wave their big teddy bear stuffed animal at us? Yes, David and Ken....for kilometers up and down the winding Sydney road...so the last time I arrived in an Australian city I got kicked, and this time I got BEARED.

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