By Gwen Owen
Gwen is a peace-loving child of the universe.
Back in 2008, I was teaching part-time at a public university near Chow Kit. I was living in Kampung Tunku, PJ then. Since there were rarely any parking spots available at the university and the area around it, I always took the LRT from Taman Bahagia, PJ to KL Sentral and then walked to the Sentral monorail station to take a train to Chow Kit. Despite it being rather troublesome as I had to switch stations, I was always confident of reaching the university on time. Classes began at 6.30pm – the rush hour. If I were to drive into KL, there was always the possibility of a traffic jam and that spelt trouble for a lecturer like me who needed to set a good example to the students. I needed to be punctual.
The first few times I had to walk from KL Sentral to the monorail station right opposite, I felt pretty scared as I have been told by many that it was not a very safe area. I would hang on tightly to my bag and would always carry an umbrella with me so that I could use it as a weapon against any threat. Due to the perception I had of the lack of security there, I always cringed whenever I saw anyone who I thought looked like a “criminal”. You know, those who dressed shabbily, those who wore studded bangles, those with red eyes looking like they had not slept at all, those who looked like drug addicts with their dreamy expressions, those who looked Indonesian, those who looked Bangladeshi, among others. Basically, everyone who did not look like me and the people I hung out with. Talk about prejudice!
However, these prejudices and judgements soon disappeared after a month or so. Nobody told me to set these aside. Rather, a few things I was privileged to observe during each walk from KL Sentral to the monorail station changed my mind about these so-called potential “criminals”.
After a few walks to the monorail station, I started to realise that there were always blind people walking the same route too. At first, I thought nothing of it. However, by the third week, I began to wonder, ‘This can’t be coincidental. There must be a reason why there were always blind people walking the same route as I was.’
So I started to be more observant on my train rides and I soon realised that they all got off at the same station – the Tun Sambanthan station. As soon as I arrived at the university that day, I Googled to find out if there was anything related to the blind near that particular station. True enough, the Malaysian Association for the Blind was located just a short walking distance from it. I then proceeded to wonder what they did over there at the association. Another search on Google told me that there were classes they could attend there and some who are from KL were advised to commute instead of staying at the hostel. I was happy to have found out something new about a group of people who are a part of our society but whom I have never ever spoken to.
Anyway, back to the issue of my prejudices.
Soon, I became rather obsessed with observing the blind folks. They were always with their walking sticks and had quite a good idea of where they were. They rarely had someone with sight assisting them in their walks down the escalator, stairs and across the parking space between KL Sentral and the monoraiI station. I believe it was possibly due to habit. At the same time, I truly believed they had excellent hearing as it was evident that they could decide when to cross the bus lane that separates KL Sentral from the parking space, and when not to.
Once one walked across the parking space, there was a road and a traffic light. Most often, during the evenings, traffic was heavy. I noticed the blind folks would never cross when the pedestrian light was red. I guess they listened carefully to the sounds of rushed footsteps before they cross.
An interesting thing I observed during these moments at the traffic light was that every single time the blind were waiting to cross, there would be someone who would grab their hand offering to help them cross. The blind folks never opposed this kind gesture and would often smile. Some of these Good Samaritans would also go the extra mile by guiding the blind folks to the ticket counter or to the monorail ticket entrance points.
Now, let me tell you how these Good Samaritans looked like. They were the “so-called” criminals I had mentioned earlier. You know, the people we (well, maybe just me) tend to label as drug addicts, the Mat Rempits, the Mat Indon, the Mat Bangla, the Mat Gangster or Taiko and all those. So much for being judgemental, right?
In the one year that I was commuting, I had two opportunities to help the blind cross the road at that traffic light. One was quiet but thanked me and the other said to me, “Actually, Nak, I can cross myself really. But over here, there are always people who take my hand and guide me across. Always ready to help. I feel happy. Thank you Nak.”
It has been close to four years since my last commute there, but I find that instead of thinking about the tiredness I felt during those evenings of train rides, I recall these observations of the blind. I have never spoken to any blind person prior to that. I do not know any blind person personally. I would say that my only acquaintances with them were during those train rides. And those were merely me observing them.
Those observations made me feel so inadequate and sheltered somehow for I had been living in a cocoon. A cocoon filled only with people who are not blind, not deaf, not mute, not mentally challenged and not physically challenged. I started to question “how could that be?” Why was it that I had never interacted with them? I could only attribute it to my own complacency and ignorance. I was complacent with the life I had and with the people I surrounded myself with. I was ignorant of other people who existed around me. People who probably wanted me to reach out to them. I read once that we “normal” people are scared to be friends with people we consider “not normal” or “handicapped” for we cannot imagine how it must be for them, and we start to pity them. But, they do not want our pity. They want our friendship.
Another key learning from the observations was that I did judge. I judged people based on their appearance – clothes, hair, skin colour, mannerism, etc. I had all these preconceived notions in me of what a bad person would look like. I know many of us do judge and we do it at times because we want to steer clear of trouble – for our own safety. Perhaps I still do today. But I do know that since then, I do my best to see the good in people. I remind myself that not everyone who looks or acts a certain way is to be viewed negatively. I also know now that even if one is a drug addict, or a Mat Rempit and all those labels, that does not mean he or she has no kindness in his or her soul. Even if it was just enough to help the blind cross the road, that gives me hope that people can be united by a common trait – kindness.
Pic credits: Ceguera by “J” and I was blind but now I see by Thomas Hawk