The ILY Sign

19 Aug

Leah and I were standing in one of Miami’s Metrorail cars, waiting impatiently behind the closed doors as the train pulled into Government Center Station. Moments before the doors opened, I felt a hand brush against my back. It existed in that nether land between an accidental swing of the wrist and an intentional tap, but I heeded the signal and looked over at Leah on my right.

She glanced straight ahead and then put her head down. Huh. Maybe she’ll tell me later, I thought, and I looked again at the doors which stubbornly wouldn’t open.

Then the hand touched my back again, a bit more forcefully.

I looked over behind me, and saw a short middle-aged man wearing a dark blue cap and a gray mustache. He put up his left hand, forming the I-Love-You handshape. And then with a slight look of all-encompassing adoration in his eyes, he clearly enunciated, “I love you,” and smiled.

Then the doors finally opened.

Freaked out beyond imagination, I walked straight out, putting as much distance between me and my unrequited lover as soon as I could; a couple escalators later, I asked Leah if he was still behind us. He wasn’t.

Delusional proclamations of love notwithstanding, the public usage of the “ILY” sign among American deaf people appears to have changed in the past decade or so.

I remember watching a video of the 1988 Gallaudet DPN protest. There was a march to Capitol Hill, full of hundreds of goofy-looking deaf people (It was the Eighties, ok? Everyone looked goofy then.) proudly waving the “ILY” sign to the nation. Taken literally, those deaf people might as well as be screaming “I LOVE YOU!” over and over to the news cameras.

Watching this almost twenty years later made my skin crawl. Why should deaf people be represented by such a sappy expression? Why should the international deaf symbol translate directly to “I love you!”? It appears, well, childish. More (dare I say it) grassroots Deaf instead of educated Deaf? There’s nothing wrong with celebrating Deafness, nothing wrong with placing an deaf pride sticker on your car’s rear bumper. But does it have to be that sign, that message?

Can’t we come up with a bolder symbol to represent deaf people, and use the ILY sign for times when we actually mean it, like when Leah and I said good-bye to each other a few days later in Ft. Lauderdale Airport or when my parents say good night to me?

Back in Sri Lanka, the ILY sign represented just that–and more. I’m not entirely sure how the ILY sign made it to Sri Lanka, but it was used abundantly among the Rohana Special School children as well as the deaf adults around Matara. And heck, by every deaf person I met between Katunayake and Kataragama.

Chamali and Chintha.

The boys!

Sandya, Chamali, and Hasanthi.

Back: Adam, Ruwan, Ginette, Sanjeewa, Supun. Front: Nishan, Priyankara, Sudath, Shans Ahamed, Rajitha, Gayan, Fiona.

I don’t know, just looking at these pictures, the children screaming “I LOVE YOU,” I really feel it. I feel the love, man. The deaf Sri Lankans act more freely about love. Boys and girls who have coupled up at school go to great lengths to profess their love for each other without cluing in the matrons or teachers (but I’m sure this happens worldwide, too).

When someone holds up the ILY sign, I really feel they’re saying, “Hey, Adam, I really love you.”

Don’t get me wrong. This is still true in America as well. My parents using the ILY sign to me isn’t less meaningful. It’s the public usage of this symbol to represent the deaf community that bothers me.

However, in Sri Lanka, the ILY sign, when publicly displayed, identifies the signer’s deafness. This particular usage doesn’t seem common among American deaf people.

I remember one Sunday–the day Sophie arrived–when a bunch of us went into the sea at Polhena. This is a popular beach location, especially on Sundays. After splashing around with friends, I climbed out and went to talk with Ginette and Sophie who had opted to sit on the sand. When I started back towards the water, I saw a hundred Sri Lankan men and women jostling around in the shallow water.

For the life of me, I couldn’t pick out Amila, Ajith, Naushan, or Lakmal among all of the other beach-goers. To make it worse, strange men started waving at me, motioning me to come play with them. I couldn’t find anyone I knew in the water until I spotted an ILY sign being waved around. It was Amila trying to get my attention, and it worked.

When I swam up to them, I asked why they had used the ILY sign. Amila explained that it’s the best way for a deaf person to find another deaf person. With everyone else just waving open hands, using the ILY sign is saying, “The deaf people–your friends–are over here!” How ingenious. In the months that followed, I saw the ILY sign being used in the same manner many times among both the children and adults.

I’m surprised American deaf people haven’t picked up on this usage. There’s so many times I’d have loved my friends to just wave the ILY sign when standing in the middle of a crowd, making it easy for me to find them.

But it means so much more than a homing beacon. It’s a way of saying that you and I are the same. We’re both deaf, and we’re looking for each other. Nobody else–only us–knows what it’s like. Come and find us.

So have I created a double standard here? That it’s icky for American deaf people to just wave the ILY sign in front of news cameras, but it’s heart-melting for South Asian children to do it for the digital camera?

Maybe. And maybe I should do something about that–grudgingly accept the international symbol of deaf culture–but not right now. I’m too content to review pictures of endless ILYs–the exquisite blending of the I, L, and Y handshapes–being thrown around like the genuine, essential messages of love which they are.

7 Responses to “The ILY Sign”

  1. Erin 19. Aug, 2007 at 7:51 pm #

    I do think the sign ILY is over used. there is a double standard, regardless. I think it’s over used! I’ve always htought the terms, i love you are over used, do people really mean it when they say it. when my family and i say it, we mean it cuz we say it oh so rarely! we don’t say I love you all the time, when we say it, we mean it. and when i say it to boyfriend, it’s VERY rare, but when i say it, I absolutely mean it. but those people in the pictures, it hink they genuinely mean it.. i think cuz they treasure life a lot more, I don’t know how to explain it, but i think you know what i mean. I think when they say I love you, they mean it, at least a lot more often than when we say it every single time. I’m a huge believer of only saying I love you to certain people when i absolutely mean it, and that’s a phrase i say oh, so very rarely, so when i say it. they know I mean it…

  2. Kevin 20. Aug, 2007 at 2:20 am #

    Know when I realized that “ILY” sign has run its course? A lady with a huge “ILY” tattoo on her back. It was HUGE – about 10 inches wide. I thought to myself “that’s it!”. I cannot look at another ILY sign without rolling my eyes inward.

  3. White Ghost 20. Aug, 2007 at 3:42 am #

    What did the ILY sign make so special? Who invented the ILY sign? It was invented by an American during the World War II.

    White Ghost

  4. Dianrez 20. Aug, 2007 at 6:56 am #

    There is no better contribution to the world from the Deaf Community than the ILY sign. Let’s give it away freely and without restrictions to the world; and use our own signs that have more specific meanings for our Deaf community.

    “I’m here, find me!” (point to self from above, sign HERE) “Friends to friends!” (hold up FRIENDS) and “I really, really, love you!” (the R-ILY sign) can be easily agreed upon and spread through use. A new one, the deaf applause sign, could be signed with both hands as (D + WAVE APPLAUSE) to identify oneself as a Deaf person.

    Or we could always use the ILY sign.

  5. Diane 21. Aug, 2007 at 5:49 pm #

    “I love you” — has many definition of meanings therefore *ILY* you all!

  6. Debbie, Gins mum 21. Aug, 2007 at 11:12 pm #

    Working at a High School I inevitably come across numerous signs a, gestures, sayings and graffitti.

    The fingers for peace are used widely by people in NZ in particular with Japanes students who seem to use them in every photo taken.

    The peace sign turned around has a less desirable meaning, apparently initiated by archers in France who used their two fingers to shoot arrows and then jestured the fingers (minus the bow) at their attackers when their aim was succesasful, a century or two later we are still using the fingers.

    The sign for good has been around from the Colosseum where the people put their thumbs up if they wanted a gladiator to live or down if they wanted him to continue to fight until death.

    Words come and go too: Cool, Bling Bling, Cuz, Bro,Yeah…

    Words,jestures or signs all have different meanings even if they’re the same Words,jestures or signs. I think they’re done to be at one with others, a common denominator, however, when they are given with full body language and or tone their meaning becomes what the origional meaning was meant to be (phew what a mouthful)

    So… The I love you sign is a sense of being at one with people around, trendy maybe for centuries to come like the good and bad sign, but a true I love you sign will come with facial expression and body gesture when it’s given out with it’s true meaning.

  7. Indrajit Gunasekara 28. Aug, 2007 at 2:51 pm #

    Dear Adam


    Your study of Sri Lankan culture is intense and amazing. You even found out who made the Thissamaharama Dagaba and when!!!

    Matara is my native city where I was born and grew up. My father was Deaf and SSL is my mother language. I am now a student at the University of Hawaii majoring in Deaf education. I have mainly studied ASL and American Deaf culture, but for the last three years I have been online researching Sri Lankan Deaf education. The most wonderful and vivid description I ever found was your blog!!! I close my eye and see you going to Gandara and dealing with Kasun’s situation. Your video on mangosteen makes me so homesick: the kids with bright eyes and moving hands signing around.
    This September I am planning to go to Sri Lanka for four mounts to see what’s new in Sri Lankan Deaf culture and education. While researching to find something about Matara’s Deaf School, I found your journals, Awesome!!!
    Your blog is pure soul with original thought for lucky Rohana School.

    I am so happy and proud to know there are people willing to share their soul with a Deaf school in my native Matara. I would like to get touch with you to share experiences.