Nhung, age thirty-two, is like a songbird in many ways, and thus it is that with her permission I have nicknamed her “The Nightingale”. She lives at home with her father, age seventy and her mother, age sixty-five.
Her father is retired from his work as an independent construction contractor and her mother has retired from her work in a furniture building operation. Nhung jokingly explains, however, that her father is now once again employed as her personal unpaid Grab (Uber in Vietnam) driver. She also has two older brothers, ages thirty-eight and thirty-two, both married and sighted. She herself was born badly vision impaired and states that her vision rating is two on a scale of ten. With good luck and in the best lighting she might be able to count two fingers if placed in the right position in front of her face. As far as she knows she is the only visually impaired person in her extended family.
Nhung is one of the “Omamori family” whose constant smiles and laughter brighten all whose lives she touches. The sound of her laughter reminds me of a songbird. Her demeanor, too, seems often birdlike while her seemingly carefree spirit of independence and freedom are all suggestive of the lives of birds. Even her attitude about marriage and family, very unusual in Vietnamese society today, are suggestive of the freedom of a bird. It was when I was teasing her about boyfriends while seriously inquiring as to her own life dreams that I learned that, while not uninterested in men, nor in perhaps having a family one day, she is equally comfortable with the thought of simply pursuing her dream of one day having enough money to travel and explore the world.
While serious vision impairment and blindness give rise to a community of the blind, both at Omamori and in society in general, as with any community it is the individual differences in the community members that make the community an interesting place, figuratively speaking, in which to reside. Nhung describes herself as “simple, soft, happy, harmonious and friendly”. Add to that “free as a bird” or carefree, as well as concerned about the well-being of others and it’s easy to see what sets her apart as a unique individual in the blind community. I had a hard time choosing between the chickadee and the nightingale. However, learning how much she loves to sing and knowing that she has a beautiful voice sealed the choice of nightingale for her nickname.
It seems natural that Nhung’s experience in school was charmed by friends, both sighted and vision impaired who helped her a lot, given her personality and positive outlook on life. She tells of simply enjoying “hanging out” and relaxing with friends, or singing for and with them as her primary extracurricular activities while in school. She attended public school in first and second grade until her parents learned about the existence of the only school for the blind in northern Vietnam, located right at home in Hanoi. From third through 9th grades she attended the School for the Blind in Hanoi (which offers an education only for grades one through nine). After graduation from there she went on to pursue her high school diploma, studying on the weekends at a school run by the Association for the Blind, also in Hanoi, where she became acquainted with several other of our staff members.
Amazingly, Nhung is able to read printed books written in Vietnamese, albeit with great difficulty. She is also able to read and write Braille, but seldom uses it for more than taking notes since very few materials are available in Vietnamese Braille. Given the charming musicality and immediacy of Nhung’s laugh I couldn’t resist teasing her whenever the opportunity presented itself. So of course I jumped at the chance to tease her when she shared with me that she now primarily resorts to her smartphone to listen to books even though she acknowledges that it is much easier to forget what she has “read” than if she had taken the trouble to read using Braille or the printed word.
Regardless of the study methods, however, Nhung is one of the very few blind and visually impaired students in all of Vietnam who has managed to complete a four year university education. She is the only such person working at Omamori. After completing her degree in business administration she applied to a number of corporations but none considered that someone with her level of visual impairment could possibly be a valuable asset to the company. Such is the level of misunderstanding of the capabilities of many in the visually impaired and blind community. Eventually, she gave up on the idea of finding meaningful employment in the corporate world and went to work for one of her older brothers who ran a business making custom drapery.
After two years of working with her older brother, and feeling that her abilities were underutilized, she decided to move on, learning about Omamori from one of her friends from school who was already working at Omamori at the time. As to leaving her older brother’s employ, “well, have you ever tried working for your older brother”, she joked in a playful way. In reality, though, she feels that she has truly found her niche. She expressed, passionately, that she truly loves her work, loves the instant gratification that comes from customers who give her positive feedback, expressing their gratitude for all she has done to relieve their aches and pains. She also really enjoys working with “people like myself”. While I was chatting with her, I too, remembered the gleeful good times we enjoyed in English lessons when she and her friends would tease, hug, caress each other and laugh together. Her mention of her love of massage also immediately reminded me of her incredible sensitivity to and immediate understanding of my neck and shoulder issues. I was truly impressed at the time by how quickly she found the trouble spots with her fingers and by how effectively she addressed them, even rivaling her teachers at times. Indeed, she explained that she truly believes that her vision impairment has enabled a pronounced tactile sensitivity not often evident in sighted people. She went on further to say that she believes that for some blind and vision-impaired people it is the hearing, or even the sense of smell that seems outsized in comparison to most in the sighted community.
Nhung, however, once again reiterates her depiction of herself as “just a simple girl”. She says her only wish is to get better, and better, and BETTER in order to make her clients feel better, but also so that she can save lots and lots of money to travel the world! First country to visit: South Korea, she explains after some hesitation. Why? Because I’m in love with Korean drama and K-Pop. “Nhung, you’re as free as a bird. Dream on. Spread your wings and see the world. We’ll all be delighted to listen to your song as you fly away.”