Interview with Teo Zhi Xiong – Seasoned and Committed Staff Interpreter at The Singapore Association for the Deaf

General elections rally 2016


A passionate and experienced sign language interpreter, Teo Zhi Xiong shares his journey in SADeaf with Digital Senior.

1) Why did you choose to pick up Child Psychology and Early Education in Ngee Ann Polytechnic?

I liked kids and thought that psychology seemed like what Professor X was doing, which was really cool. Beneath that, I guess I’ve always been fascinated with purpose, meaning, and identity. Children are humans at their purest form and psychology is self-explanatory.

2) What are some of the activities you took part in while studying in NP and SUSS?

I was a committee member of the Hi! Club. There, we learned to sign from seniors, taught signing when we became seniors, planned camps and had public and school performances in sign language. There I was introduced to the wider Deaf community and met my best friends, hearing and Deaf, which is an important source of emotional fuel for my work. I also played volleyball and volunteered with YMCA occasionally running camps for individuals with special needs.

I was already working as an interpreter while studying part-time in SUSS. Much of my time was devoted to work so I wasn’t involved in school activities. The most memorable activity would be volunteering in the Organising Committee for the World Federation of the Deaf, Asia Youth Camp 2016, held in Singapore.

3) What sparked you to join the Hi! Club in NP?

I didn’t know Hi! Club existed! My course mate joined the CCA and pulled me along. Who knew that was the start of my profession now. In retrospect, I joined because of all the common misconceptions. First, I thought sign language was universal and learning one language could give me access to connect with the world. I learned that each country has its own unique sign language which may not be mutually intelligible.

Second, I was quite shy about my voice, I thought learning sign language would mean that not needing to speak. I ended up doing a lot of voice interpreting (from sign language to spoken language). Hearing myself through the microphone was painful in the beginning. Do I really sound like that? I’ve gotten more comfortable with my voice now.

4) What are your best and worst moments as a sign language interpreter?

Worst Moments:

I was once threatened by a man twice my size to stop interpreting, when I was interpreting for a conflict, or he would punch me. He was just an arm’s length away from me. I was shaking inside and realised that I was so exposed.

Generally, it is difficult to interpret for emotional situations such as that of loss, trauma and separation especially those that echo similar experiences of our own.

There is a severe lack of manpower, understanding and recognition of our profession. Someone once told me off saying ‘interpreters should not expect to be paid well because all we do is just talking and bus drivers deserve more respect’. I receive texts from clients during off-work hours asking me why I’m out with my friends instead of interpreting at a session with no interpreters. My longest continuous stretch of interpreting was from 8am – 1am, alone. Such long hours are the norm in Singapore. Interpreting is a unique task that requires us to work in pairs at 20min intervals because it is so mentally exhausting. A lot of preparation is done before the interpreting assignment so that we have knowledge of the subject matter and interpret the concepts accurately.

Best Moments:

Going to different places, some behind closed doors obscured from the public, and meeting people from all walks of life. The job has brought me overseas to places like Turkey, Japan and Malaysia. Locally, I’ve been to the courts, police stations, hospitals and I believe I’ve attended every general election rally in 2016, etc.

The highlight will surely be making friends with Deaf individuals and sign language users from all over the world. The power and beauty of sign language is that it transcends barriers of spoken language that the hearing communities face. While each country uses its own unique sign language, we used an international signed system for communication. The hearing world has always been fascinated with developing a lingua franca to sidestep linguistic isolation. Perhaps, with the perspective of Deaf Gain, there are lessons we can learn from the Deaf Community in rebuilding the Tower of Babel.

5) What drives you to commit to the cause?

I like bringing people together. Interpreting connects people. Other than interpreting, I’m also working on growing the pool of interpreters. I enjoy the process of building communities through facilitating communication or gathering like-minded people to serve a bigger purpose other than ourselves.

6) Where do you see yourself five to ten years down the road?

I can’t be sure, but I guess it will be along the lines of building communities. I have a friend who jokingly calls me Bob because he complains my Chinese name is too difficult. In a sense, I see myself as Bob the builder of communities.

7) What is one quote you live by?

I don’t believe in living by a quote because there isn’t a single one that can encompass the different stages in life. Maybe something interesting is that I have a countdown widget on my phone, which counts down to the end of my life. I used the mean life expectancy of Singaporean males. Morbid as it is, trickling down by the second each time scroll through social media, I remind myself to cherish our finite time here and make it count.

8) What is one thing you will tell your past self and your future self?

To my past self ‘Don’t be so scared, just do it!’.

To my future self, ‘Remember the purpose and why you started doing this!’

9) What are your hobbies?

Reading, volleyball, trekking, and binge-watching shows.

10) What advice do you have for young people who are passionate about helping the deaf?

Ignite your passion with rational and emotional commitment. I believe you are brave enough to take the first step. But, take time to know the community and approach the community like how you will approach your friends. Remember, ‘Nothing about us without us’—if you are passionate, work with and not for them!


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