Blind in wilderness


Years ago, I took a course in Wilderness Survival.

One of the classmates was a blind Korean guy.  The others all white males.

We were to spend the entire five days in the White Mountain of New Hampshire,

with one solo day. Our “final” was rock repelling.

I kept looking in my teammate’s eyes and wondered how in the world he could survive the course, its obstacles and the rest of his life in urban jungle.

To make a long story short. We all passed eventually, but not without a hitch.

That hitch happened to be me. I repelled down straying from everyone else’s path (of least resistance). My instructor leaned down and gave me personal feedback while I was dangling in mid-air.  This wasn’t  my first time. Later, at an MCI white-water rafting trip, I got bumped out of the inflated raft into the gushing icy-cold Colorado waters. Luckily, my teammates circled the raft and pulled me back in.

Every once in a while, when facing seemingly insurmountable  challenges, I tap into that dormant strength to overcome fear. We all learned about our inner strength from that course, including our blind teammate who said “I see” a lot.

He was an inspiration to us all (at least, he wasn’t afraid of the pitch-dark solo).

People without sight, without limp remind us that fear is an emotion to co-exist with hope.

The fear of losing face is big in societies like Vietnam‘s.

Here it is common that a company employs mostly relatives.

Or vice versa, long-time employees are regarded as families.

Your identity is that of so and so’s cousin, aunt, uncle or nephew.

The  relationship web got more entangled when your ancestors had multiple marriages. Vietnamese language has precise naming for older/younger brothers and sisters (Anh/Em).

And to be on the safe side, just address everyone as if he/she were older.

What does this have to do with wilderness survival?

I am reentering a society built on collective identity.

My atomized self needs some attitude adjustment.

Instinctively, I weighed the way I address people, reading their non-verbal responses.

To survive here, I have to flash back to that “solo”night in the mountain, without light and without human interaction. Just inner noise and inner voice.

In Vietnam, self-mastery is hailed as a core virtue and a corner-stone for leadership (Tu Than, Te Gia, Bnh Quoc, Tri Thien Ha). Super-imposing this on Western leaders today (for instance my Penn State Defense Coach, who decided to go on the offense with young boys), we probably can narrow the field quite a bit.

Every culture has its gem. But if one is blind, it doesn’t matter  wilderness or waterfront, one still can’t see.

I know one thing from that wilderness survival class: my Korean teammate did not judge me by sight e.g the color of my skin or any other outward factors.

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