Characteristically to the side of the large stage sits our interpreter dressed in black, trained only recently at a Julliard seminar for theatrical interpreting. He modifies his signing hands into paws while he wrestles with his emotions for Beauty as the Beast sings behind him. His ASL makes visual a line of music as only Wing Butler can.
I first met Wing Butler in a meeting preparing speakers for deaf youth. With his new business budding, the entrepreneur joked about his Chinese roots and related business goings on. As coordinator of the event, I later attended the last half of his presentation where I first heard more tender stories of his past of overcoming. I was so touched by the message I recommended him to a youth program to give inspirational talks for their summer camps.
His parents are both deaf; his mother is of Chinese decent and his father is Caucasian. Life for Wing posed a unique challenge. For example, many Chinese are adverse to mixed blood and he grew up in deaf culture rather than in Asian-American culture. The Utah white-hearing population, on the other hand, tends to be ignorant of both the Chinese-American culture as well as deaf culture. And of course Wing is not deaf either.
The first time I ever teamed with him I was on a mentor permit with only a few days of professional experience. The contrast in our skills was reflected on the faces of the young deaf clients who had no trouble expressing their distaste at the incongruity between us. I still remember the awe I felt at hearing a story with my ears and watching it appear like a 3-D movie before my eyes on Wing’s hands.
His Chinese family who can trace their roots to royalty left their deaf sister out of the status and quality of life they enjoyed. Some of the family emigrated from the Canton area of China to California eager to build their dreams upon the vision of “Gold Mountain”. Their deaf sister in California mingled with the Deaf community, a different circle than the rest of her family. There she was exposed to a wide variety of people and possibly more tolerant of her Chinese immigrant status than the wider hearing population of California would have been. It was amongst that circle that she met Mr. Butler, a Caucasian deaf man and consequently, for Utah interests, a Mormon.
She joined the LDS church herself, married, and soon settled in Pleasant Grove, a fortress of Caucasian Mormondom. Wing, their first child was not named for a bird appendage but for a common Cantonese family name spelt Wihng in Roman letters meaning ‘a person of honor or glory’. As the oldest, Wing pioneered for his forthcoming brothers and sisters an identity. He was neither accepted as white, Chinese-American, or Deaf but usually as a poor and often slovenly dressed misfit learning English from a society generally callous to the needs and differences of minorities.
He gained his spoken language through the white society around him and often at the brunt of jokes. Ching chong…not ever knowing for himself the beauty and depth of the language he came to tease about to fit in. But he did gain his voice and quickly discovered its power and his developing facility in it.
As he grew older his Chinese family viewed him as the man in their sister’s life who could provide for her financial security. On a visit to California he saw the wealth of his uncles and the strangeness of the Chinese-American culture he’d been isolated from. They laid familial pressure upon him to succeed as they had done through their entrepreneurial enterprises. Now Wing owns and operates Signing Resources, a free-lance interpreting agency. His sister is the company’s website model.
He built his life from the ashes of isolation and identity disorientation. He continues the wrestle for that identity for his own family. Turning back to the musical and the interpreter in black, Beauty now walks on stage. She discovers the Beast’s true identity and with a kiss, turns him into a handsome prince. The show is over.
Wing debuted as an interpreter for a reality television show called Ultimate Fighter Championship and the list of high profile gigs is long.
When grandma phoned me I could hear her, she just couldn’t hear me. It was her first real attempt to use her emergency cell phone. She refused to let me pick her up in Provo, only a forty-five minute drive away, for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert. Grandma, I chided, I live in DC. Everything is forty-five away, at least. It’s nothing. But she insisted on riding that new train instead. Frontrunner it’s called and the service from Provo was in its inaugural week.
She did arrive in Salt Lake. I knew because I got her call. But telling her to wait at the station when she couldn’t hear me didn’t help. The phone doesn’t seem to be working, she said sweetly, I’ll try again in a few minutes. So I dashed ten minutes across large streets and empty parking lots then jumped on a white Trax trolley car to head her off. The phone rang. She’d left the station to head in by herself. Uh oh, without an audible response from me, she could roam all night. Trax’s doors rang starting to close. I leapt out. Bounding into the departing trolley in the opposite direction I glanced out the window to be sure we faced town center. After a few street lights the trolley took a slow round arching south. I almost panicked. Wrong direction. I jumped out at the next stop. Another ring from grandma. I turned.
She looked lovely in her concert coat, holiday red, and globby gold earrings. She stood just outside the large malls across from Temple Square, I should have guessed, as if taking Frontrunner and Trax and getting a thirty-something to reply through a rectangular gadget was nothing. I, however, was breathing heavily just glad I hadn’t lost the mother of seven strong willed children.
We browsed the women’s clothing section of Macy’s first as I’d done with her more than a dozen times throughout my life. Luckily this time she kept her wallet in her bag avoiding a sale rack fashion show to be stuffed in my suitcase. For a bite we roamed downstairs to nab a gyro. Then we headed over for Alfie Boe’s Christmas debut with the MoTab. The Salt Lake Conference Center dwarfs me like a shrunken toy in comparison to its size but decor, singers, and orchestra in magnitude cheered and filled it well.
Singers caroled the magical Christmas orchestrations you’d expect from the MoTab. I glanced over at grandma. With so many children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren, to have a night out alone with her was rare, perhaps my first time. She’s impacted my life in so many priceless ways but to put it succinctly, she’s taught me how to live my life to the very end. Trying out Frontrunner in its first week and calling me from a device she’d hardly ever used before solidified it.
In 2015, my grandma passed away from Pancreatic cancer. She was exercising five days a week at the gym until it happened.
Ty ate chocolate and I thought it was ok until my neighbors told me chocolate poisons dogs. We lived in Provo, Utah nestled in a circle of homes facing the Wasatch Front mountain range. My brothers and I in our teens took Ty in from our neighbors who moved. When he realized I’d be the one to actually feed him, our chocolate colored curly-haired cockapoo stuck to me more tightly.
He guarded our circle but it was more of a goliath show. He took on dogs three times his size and chased mailmen who shrugged him off like a shaggy ball of carpet. It took convincing for my grandparents to approve his stay with us. They owned the house and the muddied carpets Ty trampled. Though, when they realized he’d keep out the deer from grandma’s flower garden, we all settled in nicely.
Later I left for college and lived abroad. A couple years passed before I returned. Mom moved. I looked forward to seeing Ty who had slept near my side when I was sick and kept me constantly playing.
Mom stood in the entry to the kitchen of a house I’d lived in for only a few hours. When I asked about Ty she didn’t respond. My younger brother stepped into the entry next to her interjecting, “He’s dead!”
They hadn’t told me and both their stories were different. Mom’s story involved a nibbed child and an angry father. My brother’s was about moving to a house that didn’t allow pets. No one wanted to discuss it further and I suppose the truth lie somewhere in between.
Our goliath chaser was gone, though, and I didn’t get to say goodbye.
January 16, 2015