by Priscilla Yeung
From the Editor: Priscilla was a presenter at the virtual meeting of the Cultivating Asian/Pacific Islander Identity at our national convention in 2020. I attended that meeting and encouraged articles for the Braille Monitor. She responded with her story and her observations. Her determination and strategy have served to rebuild a broken family relationship. Perhaps it can work for other families, and maybe it is a partial prescription to healing the differences that tear at the fabric of our country. Here is what she says:
I currently work at the Society for the Blind in Sacramento as an OM [orientation and mobility] instructor and the coordinator of a training program for blind seniors. I am Chinese-American and born here in the states. My parents immigrated here from Hong Kong as young adults. This past NFB 2020 convention, I had the privilege of being a part of the newly formed Asian membership division. Growing up with vision loss in my Asian culture, I felt isolated and different because of my blindness. And now, knowing that I am not alone, I feel hopeful that together we can work towards making change in our culture. I think in order to make change, we have to do the hard work of looking into our past and acknowledging the good in our culture and also the negative aspects of our culture that have shaped our experiences and who we are.
When I think about the values that have been instilled in me from my family, I think about the values of working hard, surviving in the midst of challenges, and valuing the family unit beyond the individual. However when it comes to disability, most Asian families see disability through the lens of shame and burden and the cause of blindness being brought on by family sin.
Thinking back to my past as a child, these cultural truths were imbedded into who I was, although I did not have the words to express them growing up.
One of my earliest memories that stands out to me was my grandma in Hong Kong leaving me at home when all the other cousins were able to go out and have fun. She said that if I went out and my cane touched someone else, they would become blind like me. I learned at a young age that being blind was shameful and embarrassing. My vision loss was a family secret to be hidden. I had to do everything I could to be normal.
My parents believed that finding a good husband to take care of me, their daughter with an “eye problem,” was important. We never used the word blind in our family nor knew any stories of successful blind people. They loved me, and they were well intentioned and did everything they could to help me see again. Their attempts included numerous acupuncture appointments on my eyes and making me drink all that bitter medicinal soup that I too guzzled down hoping that it would bring a miracle. They brought me to many prayer meetings to try to see if God would heal me. I learned through this that my parents would work hard and sacrifice their time and money to help me heal from this condition.
If I did not heal from my vision loss, then the only other alternative for me was to find a husband who would take care of me. Looking back, they too were by-products of their cultural beliefs, and therefore so was I. I began to also believe that I was incapable of taking care of myself and that I was and would forever be a burden to my family for the rest of my life.
Fast forward a couple of years, after I received training and mentorship at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. I met my husband who is also Chinese, and we were married without the blessing of his family. His family had disowned him because they were against his choice of marrying me, a blind woman, who they believed without even meeting me would become a burden to him. After all, they too were caught in the Asian cultural misconceptions of blindness.
These years were trying times for my husband and me. I questioned all that I had learned about blindness and independence from the National Federation of the Blind. I was on the brink of being dragged back into my past cultural beliefs of shame and uselessness. I am grateful for my fellow Federationists who stood by me, listened to my hurt, and kept reminding me about the truth. I went to counseling so that I could do the internal work of acknowledging the cultural pain, to forgive and let go in order to move forward so that I could be proud of all that made me who I am. Only then could I truly begin to approach my relationship with my husband’s family with openness and understanding of their own cultural experiences that led to their misconceptions about blindness.
Thankfully as the years passed my relationship with my mother-in-law mended, and we continue to move toward reconciliation. But this didn’t happen in a “western” way, like with an apology full of words and hugs but more so with small gestures that show me that she in her own way accepts me. I believe that this was a part of the “saving face” that transpired for the both of us.
Being open to my mother-in-law’s way of reconciliation meant that a direct conversation was not the avenue to bring forth the acceptance I longed for. I realized that I needed to listen to her and to actively look for opportunities to make real connections in any way possible to take small steps forward. My husband and I wanted to show my mother-in-law that we valued family. For example, in the early years we would attend uncomfortable family dinners where nobody would speak to me, but I realized that there was value in just being there because it meant that I was present. We made sure we showed up for the important dates like people’s birthdays or Chinese holidays so we could acknowledge the relationships we longed for. Finally, when I had my son, something slowly shifted, and my mother-in-law responded by caring for my son; we allowed her to give him his Chinese name. Today we do not talk about the painful start of our relationship, but she shows me that her heart is open by the special chicken soup she makes me, the lucky red envelope money she gives my children, and she always welcomes us to her home. Similarly, when we visit, I listen to her attentively as she shares about her life growing up as an immigrant and all the pain and hard work it took her to support her family. How she has acted as a mother was only motivated by wanting what was best in her own cultural view for her son. I understand now how the Asian culture has shaped her beliefs about disability; just as I have had to overcome the negative stigmas personally, she also had to in her own life. I am grateful for her willingness to work through these negative cultural beliefs in her own way and in her own time.
The journey to overcoming the stigmas of blindness is one that we as Asians will face because we live within our Asian culture, and all its values have helped shape who we are. Therefore we need to celebrate the positive parts of our culture, acknowledge the negative parts, and seek to work within the cultural norms in a creative manner. Perhaps this means listening to each other’s stories and building understanding. Perhaps this means listening more and speaking less for a time. Perhaps this means finding little moments of openness and sharing nuggets of thoughts. However it looks like for one’s family and community, I believe that these cultural shifts in attitude and in heart will take more than our lifetime, but recognizing our shared experiences within our culture is the first step toward breaking down the negative cultural stigmas of blindness.