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Sprinna Chiang, Volunteer for the Disabled

The Unexpected Joys of Giving


The Unexpected Joys of Giving


In devoting her spare time to working with the blind, Sprinna Chiang has become a beacon of hope. Along the way in her journey of service she has been privy to a vision of happiness few sighted people will ever know.



The Unexpected Joys of Giving

By Jau-Yi Wu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 500 )

There is nothing particularly remarkable about her. She's just another anonymous pedestrian brushing past on the street, bus or subway. But she has taken part in two trips that set her apart from the ordinary.

Just 34 years old, Sprinna Chiang once worked in media. About five or six years ago, she began spending her off hours and weekends volunteering her services to assist the disabled, mostly working with the congenitally blind or severely vision impaired.

"To me it's simply lending a hand, helping them do little things, and it helps me perceive my own worth," she says.

She puts her talent for writing to use in fund-raising and telling the stories of her vision impaired friends to help bring to more people an understanding of the world in which the blind live. Sometimes, when her blind friends want to go out or perform onstage, her two arms become their most trusted pillars of support, safely guiding them to their destination.

Embarking on a Journey of Giving

During the 2009 Dragon Boat Festival holiday, long-time friend Lira Chen, a visually impaired flutist for the Woodpecker Chamber Ensemble, requested a favor of Chiang: to take her and eight visually impaired friends somewhere.

But in this case the destination was rather far off, and would require changing planes twice to get there: the Silk Road.

It was to be a journey of giving. Along the way, Chiang's arms stayed constantly busy leading the way for two completely blind travelers while simultaneously providing a running narrative describing the scenery before them.

The strange thing was, it was precisely for that reason that she was able to appreciate the scenery in a way most sighted people never would.

Like the time when the group ascended the ramparts at Jiayuguan – known as "the first and greatest pass under heaven" – along the Great Wall. Fearing trouble due to the precipitous nature of the terrain, the local tour guide was more than a little reluctant to take them up.

The group was insistent, however, and proceeded to gingerly feel their way along the wall with their white canes, slowly making progress upwards. Upon reaching the top of the ramparts, surprised tourists from around the world broke into spontaneous applause, with some asking from what country the courageous group of blind travelers hailed.

Climbing the roughly 20-story high sand dunes at Mingshashan near Dunhuang, Chiang found the upward slog tough and, due to her terror at the height, hesitated to indulge in the "sand sliding" in which visitors routinely partake. But the visually impaired group she accompanied was by that time already gleefully sliding down the hillside, shouting back to her: "What are you still doing up there?"

Just Who Is It that Can't See?

On the flight from Lanzhou back to Taipei, Chiang asked a visually impaired married couple who work as masseurs and was traveling with the group: How is it that you don't fear the trouble or risks involved with traveling?

"We both know that one day we are doomed to never again be able to see this world, so we're seizing the opportunity to have as much fun as we can while we still have some sight left," they replied with a laugh.

Less than a year after the Silk Road tour, the same group of visually impaired friends once again approached Chiang for a favor. This time their destination was one that even the average person cannot necessarily reach easily: Tibet.

Before the group even set out for base camp on the slopes of Mount Everest, some of them failed to acclimatize and came down with acute mountain sickness. Stricken with fever and intestinal upheaval, and even requiring IV drips, they became too weak to go on.

Yet the ones forced to stay behind were not disconsolate at their plight, but joked happily, and insisted on moving on.

On arrival in the Tibetan town of Shigatse on the southwestern Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, Chiang fell into her familiar role of describing in intricate detail the shapes of the clouds and the forms of the mountain peaks stretched out before her eyes. Suddenly, one of the group spoke: "I think the birds here in Shigatse must be big and fat!"

Chiang was taken by surprise as she had been focused on the visual topographical scenery and had paid no heed to songs of the birds in the surrounding mountain forests. Although the members of the tour group were unable to see, they experienced the entire journey through their senses of hearing, smell, touch and taste, forming deep impressions of the scenery along the way. The traveler who mentioned the birds had deduced that because of the lack of oxygen at Shigatse's altitude, that the birds there were still able to sing so prodigiously must mean either that they were of sizable physical stature or possessed powerful cardiovascular function.

"Because of them, I'll always remember how big the birds are in Shigatse," Chiang says laughing. "They use their imaginations and vitality when they travel, to see things that a sighted person does not."

An Inadvertent Life of Selfless Devotion

At the conclusion of the trip, Chiang was rather unclear as to who had helped whom more during the course of the journey.

When she first started working in television after graduating from university, a producer suggested that because of her introverted nature, she might be best suited to editing, where she could salt herself away in an editing booth and not really have to interact with anyone.

After years of volunteer work, Chiang has blossomed into an energetic, humorous woman who now receives frequent invitations to speak about her experiences on the road with her visually impaired friends.

And it's been more than just one occasion where Chiang ended up actually receiving more than she gave. Furthermore, she often finds that the more selflessly she gives, the more she reaps unanticipated rewards.

Before she became involved in her volunteer work, Chiang thought all she knew was writing. But now she's aware of her knack for fund-raising, for leading groups of blind friends on far-flung travel adventures, and even for arranging soundtracks for documentary films.

"These are all things I originally would not have imagined, and since working with them I've come to be more hopeful that I can be stronger and accomplish more," she says with a gleam in her eye.

This year, Chiang is set to launch the "Sighted-Blind World Travel Partnership" to get more people involved in helping the visually impaired enjoy the joys of travel.

In Taiwan, a lot of people look at volunteer work as something you do after you retire. But as Chiang has shown, the earlier you learn how to give, to share your precious time with others, the more beautiful a thing it becomes.

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy