Sign Language

Life as a Coda: An Interview with Ku Mei Kern

Life as a Coda: An Interview with Ku Mei Kern

A coda (child of a deaf adult) is someone who was raised by one or more deaf parents. As hearing people deeply entrenched in the Deaf community, children of deaf adults are in a unique situation. But what is it actually like to grow up with deaf parents? 

“At four years old I failed my first interpreting job,” says coda Ku Mei Kern. It was at her first parent-teacher conference.

We didn’t think to bring an interpreter, so I sat across from my parents to sign for them. My dad asked, “How is our daughter doing in school?” My teacher quickly replied, “We love Ku Mei. She is so funny with her facial expressions and the way she responds to things. She’s very hands on.”

Four-year-old me interpreted this as “Me funny. Me funny girl.” I didn’t understand the words “facial expressions” or “responds.” The statement seemed clear: I was funny.

From my interpretation, my dad believed that I was the class clown. In his mind, my clowning around caused people to think that my parents weren’t capable of raising children. 

He stood up and stormed off. That was the end of the parent-teacher conference.

Even at four years old, Ku Mei’s interpreting abilities reflected on her parents’ capability as deaf individuals raising children. 

“Being a coda can be complicated, and sometimes heavy for a child,” Ku Mei shares. “But the more deaf people I met and the more I understood Deaf culture, the more I realized that the hardships I faced growing up as a coda had nothing to do with my parents and more to do with society’s views on what Deaf people and disabilities in general.” 

A Unique Perspective

While codas face many stresses, straddling the deaf and hearing worlds provided Ku Mei with a unique way of seeing things. 

Growing up with two perspectives, children of deaf adults often recognize that people view the world through different lenses. This provides insight and understanding to other viewpoints and cultures at a young age.

Seeing the impact that culture and language have on others has allowed me to easily communicate with many types of people. I’ve learned to connect with people individually, not by stereotypes.

Different perspectives aren’t the only thing codas see at a young age. They’re also exposed to oppression, diversity, and stereotypes much earlier in life than other children. But Ku Mei believes that understanding what it’s like to be in the minority has been a huge benefit, especially when interacting with others. 

Growing up in the Deaf community exposed Ku Mei to many types of people, teaching her to build relationships with people different from herself. The Deaf community includes “Deaf plus” individuals, those who are deaf with additional conditions. But differences in the community didn’t affect the way people treated one another. “We all just treated each other as equals and did whatever it took to communicate and support each other,” Ku Mei remembers. 

Children of deaf adults view the world through a different lens. But codas face unique pressures too, often associated with language.

Signing Pressure

Imagine what it feels like to fail your first interpreting job at 4 years old. There’s an expectation for children of deaf adults to be good signers and interpreters from a young age, yet there isn’t any professional training or support. And you don’t choose to become an interpreter. You simply are one. 

Codas act as language and cultural mediators from a young age. Interpreting can be a huge stress, as the world at home is much different than at school or in the community. And children of deaf adults often base their self-worth on their language abilities. As Ku Mei explains it:

If we’re not able to interpret well, we feel bad about ourselves. People discount the fact that when I went to take an interpreter test at 19, I was worried that my parents would disown me if I failed. What would it mean if I grew up with this language and couldn’t pass a test?

Codas also have a harder time brushing off a bad interpreting job because they don’t go back to the hearing world once it’s over. Signing is their world. And rather than comparing their signing skills with other interpreters, children of deaf adults usually compare their skills with deaf peoples’ signing. Codas realize the deep impact interpreters have on deaf people’s lives, having experienced the consequences of a failed interpretation.

Codas feel a special bond with the community that shares their native language Share on X

But despite feeling the pressures of fitting into two worlds, there’s no doubt that codas yearn to be surrounded by others who sign. Like anyone, codas feel a special bond with the community that shares their native language.

Professional Opportunities

Ku Mei has worked in the Deaf community for many years, and the environment has made her feel more complete. When talking about her professional experience in the hearing community, she admits, “I felt like half of myself died.”

My coworkers didn’t understand who I really am, how I prefer to communicate, or what my native language is. This is who I am. The way I learn, the way I see the world, it’s all visual. The more time that I spend in the Deaf community, the more I feel like myself.”

Ku Mei found true job satisfaction by seeking out work opportunities that benefit deaf people. She has worked as an American Sign Language lecturer, interpreter, and instructor. 

Working in the Deaf community is a great way for codas to interact with Deaf culture. And there are many types of opportunities out there: interpreting, education, business, and advocacy.

Finding Your Coda Identity

Children of deaf adults form their coda identities as they get to know Deaf culture. Ku Mei explained:

Those who don’t continue to interact with the Deaf community lack the opportunities and experiences that form a solid coda identity.

Signing, interacting with the Deaf community, and getting to know other deaf people can help codas appreciate their upbringing and find pride in their identity. Straddling two worlds may be a challenge, but in the end, codas have a greater capacity to help many different kinds of people and spread awareness for the language they love.