I went on the I’mperfect Tour in North Point last weekend. Different from the usual walking tour, this time, I wore a blindfold during part of the tour so that I had to use my other senses to relate to the city, while learning about the history of the area.
Each able-sighted participant was paired up with a visually-impaired partner. My partner is Shing, a kind man in his 40s. When I excused myself for having to take extra time to organize my belongings before we could go for our walk, he comforted me by saying: you must be quite perfect and just want to have things done properly.
To warm up, we practiced leading other each before heading out into the streets. I tried leading him, with him holding onto my forearm, and we started walking together for the first time. As I tried to be cautious and walked slowly, he used his normal pace and almost overtook me within a few steps. Then I put on a blindfold and we switched roles. He seemed to know exactly where he was going, and I felt a strong sense of confidence being led around by him.
After the warming-up, the guides from Walk In Hong Kong 活現香港 a local group which leads theme-based tours took us to various historically and culturally interesting spots. While we were walking, we were encouraged to describe to our partners what we were seeing, which is called audio description. I learnt that this is considered a way to “open eyes” for our visually impaired friends, so that they know what is around while walking.
As we started walking on the streets, the first questions Shing asked me was the name of the street we were on, and which direction we were heading. We were on Electric Road, parallel to the tramway on King’s Road, and I looked for, while he felt, where the sun was shining from to determine our direction.
The first time when we were asked to put on the blindfold at a street corner, I felt a sense of unease. I wanted to be close to Shing: “Can I put my hand on your arm?” Somehow having contact with my new friend whom I met just 30 minutes ago gave me a sense of anchorage and made me feel safe.
We went on to visit different locations in North Point, learning about the very first property built by Li Ka Shing, the immigrant history of the district, including that of Indonesian Chinese, Shanghaiese, Hokkienese, and visited a noodle shop which still makes their own noodles by hand just behind their storefront. Standing on a bridge connecting the two sides of King’s Road, I
learned that during the 1967 riots, the policemen flew in with helicopter on one of the buildings, formerly home to the pro-Beijing groups and arrested several people.
As we were standing in front of a Modernist residential and commercial block, it was my turn to do an audio description for the group: “it looks like it was built in the 70s, and has around 20-30 floors. It has a white facade with blue rectangles painted under the windows. The font at the front depicting the name of the building is simple, and the building looks like one that I would draw if I was in kindergarten.”
I learned a few things about my new friend in our short three-hour encounter: he works in the government, has lost his sight since one year old so has no memory of being able to see. When he dreams, he also has no images but only sounds and sensations.
He demonstrated to me how he uses his iPhone 6 Plus: tapping it twice to confirm a command, and the various finger motions to operate it, as if he was playing an ukulele. With his smile and full concentration, it was as if he was giving a small performance. That is adept, as he is a big music fan. He used to buy vinyl records, and his favorite musicians include Elvis, Beatles, Bee Gees and he is into Celtic Woman lately.
I learnt that his phone reads emails to him, and that before the era of smart phones, it was very challenging for him and his friends to meet on the streets. Sometimes they would stand next to each other, without knowing the other is already there, waiting. For the sake of convenience, he rarely goes to places he has never been before, and chooses to stay on main streets, which are more spacious and easier to navigate. He always needs to know the street names for places he visits, as it is crucial for him to go around and ask for directions. But trusting others isn’t always easy.
“If they are facing you and giving you directions on where you want to go, they may say left, but really they mean right. So I try to be more careful.
“When I was a kid, one time I was asked to go to the wet market to buy vegetables. When I got home, my mum scolded me as the vendor gave me only rotten ones… But I trust people.”
He told me that I am quite calm when walking blindfolded, compared with many people. I wanted him to know that it is because I am being led around, but not alone.
“All it takes is courage. It takes courage to overcome that fear and to take steps forward without seeing. Often times one can see that there is no obstacle in front for 30 meters and that the road is wide, but still feel afraid after closing his eyes,” Shing said.
Although I wasn’t too afraid to walk, when blindfolded, I underestimated the width and spaciousness of the places I was at. Also, without using my eyes, I felt that the sound, e.g. that from the moving buses, around me became louder. It would give me a feeling that they are very close by, thus I felt unsafe. But when I opened my eyes, I realized the fear is always bigger than what the reality was. What I imagined to be a narrow footbridge was actually two-lane wide, and buses quite far away.
This led me to wonder about being in discomfort and uncertainty, and how Shing must handle it every day.
Curiosity also prompted me to ask Shing about beauty. In our society, we seem to be obsessed about the idea, whether it be used to describe people, scenery or other things. Instead of looking at appearance, Shing told me he judges a beautiful person by how well he/she communicates with and relates to him.
After the walking, we sat in a park, under the sun, and one of the fellow participants shared: “when I listened to the visual description while I was blindfolded, it made me realize that even though I am fortunate to have the ability to see, I don’t usually see much. I have been reminded to pay closer attention to my surroundings from now on.”
One of the visually impaired participants added: “the fact that we can’t see doesn’t mean we are less than others. Each of us has our imperfections, some are physical, others are deeper down. Would you go around trying to pick on other people, asking about their psychological impairment? NO! That should be the same attitude towards us, and we should stop focusing on that difference.”
I can’t imagine a more beautifully tied-in conclusion with the theme of this tour, on embracing our imperfections in life.
Hong Kong Society for the Blind is always looking for volunteers to work with the visually impaired.