Toan, age twenty-eight, was born in Nghe An province south of historic Hoi An, and is the oldest child in a family of five. Both his father and mother were farmers, though his father died of liver cancer six years ago at the age of forty-four, and at the time of this writing his mother was in the hospital with a broken leg. Toan’s younger sister, twenty-five and single, is an accountant and his younger brother is eleven years old.
Each person I have met at Omamori has revealed at least one completely new surprise. However, Toan’s life story up to this point seems to be nothing but a continuing series of surprises. In the first moments of our conversation I learned that not only does he provide for his wife, twenty-nine, and his two children, ages one and six, but that he also is responsible for the care of his eleven year old younger brother.
Blindness is well known in Toan’s family. His uncle on his mother’s side of the family is also blind, as are three of his cousins. All of these instances of blindness are believed to be caused by a genetic trait that runs in the family. Though Toan was born with normal vision, his vision began to fail soon after entering high school, at which time he began to no longer be able to read what the teacher wrote on the blackboard in school. He also lost his night vision almost entirely (often referred to in Vietnamese as “chicken blindness”) and had to be guided home from school by a friend, or be picked up from school by a family member. Ashamed to no longer be able to participate in school activities alongside his friends, Toan decided to drop out of school in tenth grade. By the time of his father’s death, six years later, Toan was completely blind.
Rather than remaining in Nghe An and becoming a burden to his family, Toan came up with another idea. As he had dreamt of international travel even from a young age, he decided to join some friends who had told him about work opportunities in neighboring Laos. He asked his father for permission and was flatly refused. Toan, however, had already made up his mind and calmly informed his father that he was already packed to go and would be leaving that same day with his friends. Arriving in a border town in Laos, about 100 kilometers east of Vientiane, Toan soon found work washing cars. During the next year living in Laos, Toan went on to work as a porter, and then as a waiter in a restaurant and ultimately began selling kitchenware door to door.
Though Toan by no means mastered the Laotian language, he learned enough simply by listening and interacting with locals to make friends and begin to develop a real sense of the cultural differences between Laotians and the Vietnamese. (For those of you not familiar with Laos, though it is a neighboring country, its traditions are far more influenced by Khmer culture and history, whereas Vietnam’s very distinct culture is far more influenced by ancient China. Furthermore, the languages have almost nothing in common with each other.) Toan describes the Laotians as more carefree and easygoing, friendlier, more relaxed and far less demanding of their children. They are far likelier to invite a total stranger into their homes to share a meal and seem far less stressed about getting ahead. In short, he says that they seem like very simple, happy people. Viewed negatively, however, it might be thought that they are lazy. He observed a number of working companions who would work for only a few days and then quit simply because they had earned enough money to meet their short term needs.
Returning to Vietnam Toan was still not ready to settle down. Rather, he began working a series of jobs in road and building construction in and around a number of cities in Vietnam, traveling all the way to Hanoi in the north and working in more than ten different cities and towns going as far south as Saigon. He never told his employers about his visual impairment and found himself even climbing scaffolding up as high as the twelfth floor of one building on one occasion. At one point, though, one of his employers, seeing him seem to move unusually slowly and carefully, confronted him. Fortunately though, his boss kindly arranged for him to do work that would be more easily manageable with limited vision.
His work as a massage therapist began in 2011 when, as he began to face the reality of his impending blindness, he decided he should learn a skill that would provide a source of income even when he became totally blind. He learnt Vietnamese traditional massage techniques at the “Tẩm Quất” studio run by the Association for the Blind in his district for a while but soon became bored with that work. Quit the studio of the blind association, he moved to another “tẩm quất” studio introduced by his cousins, who are also visually impaired. Fortunately, each of his blind cousins was a master of at least one of the specific techniques for which traditional Vietnamese masseurs are well known: acupressure, stretches and friction techniques. Though he found the training tedious and tiring he continued on so as not to disappoint his father. He didn’t want him to think that he couldn’t stick with anything long enough to master it. Thanks to his best efforts and hard-work, Toan quickly became one of the best masseurs in the studio and had many regular clients. Later, one of Toan’s regular clients asked him to come and work for him as a dedicated personal masseur. This position came to a sudden and totally unexpected end, however, when this man was thrown in prison and later executed!
At about this time Toan experienced three huge changes in his life. Even as he met his future wife and was on the verge of losing his sight altogether, he also lost his father to a sudden death. By this time Toan had decided that massage, though physically demanding, was still preferable to the hard and dangerous labor in the construction industry, which he nonetheless enjoyed.
It was in 2017 that Toan came to work for Omamori Spa. His instructors, while valuing his skills in the traditional aspects of Vietnamese Tam Quat, struggled to instill in him the added value of learning about “listening” to the breathing and life rhythms of the client, and using techniques borrowed from the Western approach that would harmonize with the client and bring unity to the broad combination of techniques employed at Omamori Spas. Town’s teachers explain that this harmonious approach did not come naturally to Toan. It is only after a long and determined struggle that he has now achieved the highest rank of Master Teacher and Therapist at Omamori. He is much sought after, both by our clients but also by his fellow therapists, who look up to him as a mentor and instructor but also, much as they would an older brother.
Toan dreams of one day traveling to the United States or to the U.K. He says that his most important dream, however, is simply to maintain his good health so that he can provide for his wife and children. Spending time with Toan and observing his interactions with his wife, his children, his little brother and even his cousins it is clear that Toan is truly a family man, even maintaining that role in a very real sense here at Omamori, as well.