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Being blind in Hanoi

Being blind in Hanoi is tough, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think

Trevor Attenberg

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Chao Hanoi Blind Trevor 02

Being blind in Hanoi is not easy. Why? Well, it is not easy for the sighted either, so my friends tell me anyway. But it is also for the same reasons that being blind is not easy anywhere. I am a curio — here, there, and everywhere. Like the best places I have lived back in the United States, I can walk back and forth to a supermarket daily, and deal with employees that have little idea what is on the shelves. I can walk to work.  But the blind thing would be so much nicer without that curio business, even if curiosity could be fermented, bottled and chugged in the store. I am always questioned, and often feel like an interviewee on the TV psychiatrists couch, especially when on the move.

Chao Hanoi Blind Trevor 07

 “Tell me what it is like walking about the busy streets, not being able to see the traffic,” they say.

“Well, I know the traffic is here,” I reply

“You get around. You don’t let much stop you.”

“If someone wants to stop me, I don’t have much choice. Otherwise, I just try to live a satisfying life,” I say

“Can you give me a picture of a typical outing?”

Typical day out, eh. Hmmmm! This is tricky. How do I explain what it is like being me? There does not seem much precedence for me. There’s no narrative for this. Will I sputter gibberish? Is there anyone around to translate?  My day to day life is a jumble of things on display: like when I slide my cane around, feeling like a putz, looking for the glass door to the shopping center, and realizing I am only not finding it because someone is holding it open for me.  I try to get oriented by reaching for the threshold, but it is too late, someone grabs my bicep and pulls me forward.

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In the middle of my street, someone has decided to park an SUV, thus politely entreating pedestrians and motorbikes to share a space about the diameter of my body to squeeze past.

Every little landmark on the side of the road: every crack in the pavement, every storm drain, every post that does not move from day to day, every way the sun touches you is your companion.

Chao Hanoi Blind Trevor 01

Crossing a busy intersection for the 333rd time since arriving, my blood pressure leaps. Weighing heavy is my backpack of crap: a digital braille display of which I only have cursory know-how, braille Uno cards I have been hoping to randomly break out for two years, sound-proof headphones with no batteries to make them soundproof, lunch. Admittedly, I often envisage major disasters happening – a speeding projectile out of nowhere cutting everything to static. Such honesty makes for good copy, but I would rather my mother not read this. I spend enough time explaining to folks how bloody safe I am so they will let me go.

Chao Hanoi Blind Trevor 11

There’re plentiful  construction noises in Hanoi, like robots with sleep apnea, plus of course debris, puddles, parked vehicles, signs and market stands strewn about in a new arrangement from yesterday, eyes you know are watching you in disbelief … an occasional terrified “woooo!” when your cane gently touches something on the pavement.

No one will just let you learn. I am often watched, followed, pushed, grabbed, even slapped or shouted at when my cane makes contact

It is lucky I enjoy learning and discovery, because that is my sentence. Every little landmark on the side of the road: every crack in the pavement, every storm drain, every post that does not move from day to day, every way the sun touches you is your companion. You learn them so you can come through more seamlessly next time. That’s why sometimes I turn back, and then do another turn back and proceed. “Are you looking for something?” people ask.

Chao Hanoi Blind Trevor 04

No one will just let you learn. I am often watched, followed, pushed, grabbed, even slapped or shouted at when my cane makes contact. In this world my mom let me stray into (Connecticut, Hanoi, Portland, Stockholm), we do not tend to have creatures walking about, tapping things with giant rods. Only aliens do that stuff, right?

I have settled on the fact that I am an enigma in motion. It is much like that jumble of new pathways, obstacles, and new language that are so difficult to untangle.

Sometimes I want to find out if there are precisely two tree plantings after the metal grate that I walked over prior to the new cafe. Such esoteric knowledge is difficult to explain on the fly; occasionally I think it would be nice if I could just hop on a fly and fast forward through it all. Cruising around on a motorbike can feel like this. On some entrances to buildings, where there are two or three steps, there are also ramps cut-away — not wheelchair accommodations, but about 25 cm wide things so motorbikes can fly in and out.

“So why go through the trouble of life in Hanoi?” people ask me.

Chao Hanoi Blind Trevor 15

It has been four months and, as I often like to point out to people, I have not died once.

They ask me this everywhere. Why solo in Scotland? What’s the point in Portland? Professors asked me why I was in Costa Rica when I was there to research the local bird population. Why not Hanoi? I have settled on the fact that I am an enigma in motion. It is much like that jumble of new pathways, obstacles, and new language that are so difficult to untangle. Tree to tree, corner to corner, sound to sound I go, connecting the dots. 

Chao Hanoi Blind Trevor 16

It has been four months and, as I often like to point out to people, I have not died once. I often have to bite the bullet metaphorically though. I can be made to feel small as a mouse. It is especially bad when I do not understand if and what people are saying or even shouting at me. I just smile and embrace the enigma that is me.

As for my day, well I try to be a respectable teacher to a gaggle of lively children. Still, colleagues and strangers tell me things without words: “What the hell are you doing here?”  Honestly, who knows? Why the SUV?

Chao Hanoi Blind Trevor 05

My daily objective is to get to the school I have now been to a hundred times, and toss in some shopping and culture. School is just 1.5 km away. I used to walk more than four times this distance daily back in the United States only four months ago, so, if I am to get used to home in Hanoi, I better stomach people’s curiosity and confusion. It would be nice if others knew my history of movement and the outdoors. They would be more indifferent. It is best just to squeak by and not be bothered, after all it is not every day people get to see a mouse with a cane.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Mad Mary

    January 4, 2020 at 5:10 am

    “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight and no vision” is a famous quote from Helen Keller. Trevor your vision is 20/20. Thanks for the ‘insight’!

  2. Avatar

    Bonnie

    January 8, 2020 at 5:14 am

    Trev, you have a wonderful, generous soul and the courage of eagles. I admire your determination in the face of daily difficulties which you encounter. You are never alone as long as there are people who love you, and those who are worthy, thoughtful and wise surely do. Keep on prodding your students toward the light; you have so much to give.

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