“Sophie’s Choice” tonight on Australian Story profiles Sophie Li and her dilemma between cochlear implants and learning Auslan.
For years Sophie Li, whose famous father Li Cunxin penned the memoir Mao’s Last Dancer, was ashamed of being deaf. She hid her cochlear implants and pretended to keep up in conversations.
When Sophie was a toddler, her mother, Mary, had given up ballet at the height of her international career to teach Sophie to hear and speak by way of cochlear implants and speech therapy.
“I’ve really only been driven by two things,” says Mary. “One was ballet. The second one was Sophie … I needed to hear my daughter’s voice.”
When Sophie was nine, she had the language capacity of a three-year-old. Mother and daughter worked even harder and slowly, Sophie began to shine academically.
But hearing by way of cochlear implants is imperfect and exhausting and Sophie struggled socially through her childhood and teens.
“I would come home feeling really defeated,” Sophie says. “And quite often I would just breakdown because it was just so hard.”
“It was heartbreaking to see her struggle through,” says her father, Li, who is currently artistic director of the Queensland Ballet. “As parents it’s very, very difficult to watch.”
All that changed when, as an adult, Sophie started meeting deaf peers and learning Auslan, the sign language of the deaf community in Australia.
As Sophie started to accept her deafness and embrace the signing world, her social anxiety receded.
“I felt like I was finally normal,” Sophie says.
And she began to question her parents’ earlier choice to teach her to speak and not to sign.
“I didn’t want to lose her to just the deaf world because I knew she could speak as well,” Mary says. “And I was frightened for her. I didn’t want her to close any options off.”
The conflict came to a head and Sophie had a choice to make – would she reject the hearing world of her parents?
Producer: Mayeta Clark
Monday 12 April at 8pm on ABC.