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Travelling to China

Editor's Note: Alan Conway lives in Gatineau, Quebec, and works as a conference interpreter for the government of Canada.

Travelling to distant lands is something many would like to do, but few actually get the chance. I was fortunate to be able to take the trip of a lifetime in 1989, when my work as a conference interpreter took me to China. Since we don't always think of how we may be perceived by people in other countries when we're disabled, that aspect of the trip was especially interesting.

I noticed some of the first differences on the Air China flight from Hong Kong to Beijing. I might well have been travelling in economy class but it always seemed that there was someone standing there waiting to see if I needed anything. Of course, communication was difficult, and if one of my colleagues, who also speaks fluent Mandarin, hadn't told me what was going on, I might well have been unaware of the attention I was attracting.

When I arrived at the hotel, I couldn't get over the confusion. There seemed to be people everywhere talking very loudly and the whole process seemed terribly disorganized. When I went to sign in after registering, I took out my signature guide and signed as I usually would. The entire process was met by uproarious laughter from the staff behind the counter. I remember at the time not feeling all that upset; after all, these people had probably had very little contact with a blind person.

During the conference, I couldn't believe the feeling of admiration my presence apparently caused. Someone had been assigned to be with us to act as our interpreter in situations where we needed help and weren't working. As it turned out, one of our colleagues took care of things, but this man couldn't do enough for me. He even told me that, if there was anything I wanted to do in China while I was there, I should tell him and he would arrange it. When I asked about visiting a school for the blind, he promptly told me to consider the arrangements made. He was as good as his word.

The visit to the school was most interesting. In 1989, Chinese schools were generally underfunded, but the situation was a lot worse in this particular school for the blind. At the time, parents had to pay for their blind children's education and, although the amount would have been insignificant for us (about ten dollars per term), it certainly represented a hardship for many parents. The Director told me that he saw only a small number of the students who could potentially have attended his school.

Here again, I certainly had some interesting experiences. When we arrived at the school, a lady came rushing out to help us. She didn't really know how to guide properly, so she stood behind me and tried to do so by pushing against my arm and trying to lift me.

When we finally got to the place where she wanted me to meet the Director, she began backing me towards the chair where I was to sit. My colleague, who wanted to come with me to the school, told me to kick my legs out from under me when he gave the word. It was the only thing to do, since I was being forced to back up and wouldn't be able to locate the chair. Of course, the chair was designed for someone quite a bit shorter than I, so I ended up sitting down very hard and certainly most ungracefully. As if that weren't enough, the lady was told that I was to be taken somewhere else after all that, so we began the process all over again.

The work of Dr. Norman Bethune, a Canadian who provided medical care to the communists during the revolution that ultimately brought them to power, has given Canada a wonderful reputation in China as a people. When I entered classrooms, teachers told their students that I was from the land of Norman Bethune and the children seemed particularly interested.

I'm uncertain that I would have liked to study there, but the school did a good job in training its students for traditional jobs as masseurs and for other types of manual work. AT the time, adaptive technology was almost nonexistent and, from what the director told me, higher education was unheard of. He was therefore very impressed by my own level of education.

He told me that blind people in China don't use white canes, and if they work it is their work units that look after everything. Losing a job is therefore something not to be taken lightly.

China certainly wasn't the kind of place where a blind person could travel very independently. The fact is that I was able to benefit a lot from the trip thanks to Jean Duval, a colleague who had learned Mandarin at the age of 14. He took us everywhere and even managed to negotiate some reduced prices. He actually told someone in a restaurant that we were socialist brothers from the former Soviet Union. Since the people he was speaking to didn't know English, they took his word for it and the price of our meals was promptly cut in half!

He also made sure we had plenty of unforgettable experiences to go along with all the hard work. The last Saturday we spent was marked by a meal in a typical Mongolian restaurant. The lady who owned it came up to each of us and gave us a glass of fermented mare's milk. She sang us each a song and when she was finished, we had to drink it down all at once. It was very smooth, but I certainly remember how fast it went to my head.

On balance, although I noticed that people often displayed considerable admiration toward me as a blind person, it was all too obvious that our view of an independent lifestyle in such a country would be very difficult to reconcile. Perhaps an analysis of Chinese attitudes to people who are blind is inappropriate here given the length of time that has passed since my trip, but I would describe the attitudes of the time as a real mixed bag. On the one hand, there seems little doubt that people admire the success of people with disabilities, but to say that they had anything like equal opportunity in China at the time would be in appropriate. I haven't had an overseas trip since 1989, but this one will certainly rank among the most interesting I have ever taken.

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